The doctrine of Total Depravity is often misstated, perhaps most severely in the context of socio-economic discussions. Sometimes, with no prior discussion of individual rights, the Calvinist will say something to the effect that “libertarianism doesn’t work because of human depravity.” We can’t let the free market be too free, they say, because humans are inherently wicked and chaos might ensue.
Of course, the obvious and clear answer is the same one Mises gave:
If one rejects laissez faire on account of man’s fallibility and moral weakness, one must for the same reason also reject every kind of government action.
We can’t say that we must disallow voluntary economic actions on the basis of man’s sinful nature, and then immediately ignore this nature when we suggest violent intervention into the market to be the means by which laissez faire is disallowed. The nature of the state, whether you are a libertarian, socialist, neoconservative, or whatever, is that it is an entity of aggression. That is the role that it plays in society. It aggresses, or threatens to aggress, against people if and when they engage in a certain illegal action.
Now, besides Mises’ answer to the objection, there remains the fact that the Calvinistic doctrine of Total Depravity is not to be confused with a Hobbesian worldview wherein everyone is all the time at each other’s throats, against the betterment of others, and by default a threat to their person and property. In the Hobbesian framework, without the laws given by the state, mankind will devolve into chaos, murder, and destruction of each other.
This is not the Calvinist understanding of total depravity. Sure, men are capable of such things, but they are also capable of reason, of kindness, of peace, and of noble interaction with each other. In history there have been eras where men have acted better than in other eras.
The Calvinist does not say that man is always and everywhere hateful toward his neighbor. Rather, what the Calvinist says is that no matter how many nominally good things the individual does, no matter how peaceful, no matter how kind and sweet, even these things are like filthy rags to a holy God. The Calvinist view is not that men can’t be nice to each other and that they can’t work together, on the market, to build up a civilization and make remarkable achievements in economic and social growth; instead, the Calvinist view is that God alone is righteous and nothing man does meets that righteous standard.
The Calvinist view is that the nominally “good” things that man does here on earth are not ultimately “good” in the sense of righteousness. If good means beneficial to one’s neighbor, if it means respectful to the lowly, if it means helpful to the poor, if it means giving to charity, if it means restraining from harming one’s neighbor and property, it means being nice and patient, if it means working to make the world a better place, then we can say that man “does good things.” However, if we ask whether these “good things” are satisfactory to God, that is, if the action qua action of man, meets the standard of righteousness, then we must reply in the negative. In this view, man is not at all “good” in the ultimate sense. Total depravity doesn’t mean that man can’t do “good things” in the empirical/pragmatic sense (as defined above,) it just means that “good things” aren’t good in the moral sense. The moral, of course, having everything to do with the soul/heart/mind.
Sometimes (even on this site), we confuse or conflate morals and ethics. Technically speaking, we might differentiate between morals and ethics by saying that ethics are doing good deeds and following the ethical code in action (exterior) whereas morality is thinking properly (Godwardly) and in a way that truly is satisfactory to God. We can all behave ethically, over against the view of Hobbes, but we cannot be righteous/moral of our own accord, which is the Calvinist view.
For even the righteousness by which we were justified was not ours, but Christ’s, imputed to us graciously.
It is important that we remember this in talking to those who are wary of the completely free and laissez faire market. If they try to cite total depravity as a reason why man should not be totally free, we can correct their understanding of total depravity. God has created man to do great things, to be able to interact peacefully, and to work together to build civilization and society. We can do all these things freely, kindly, and without harming one another.
It’s just that none of these things save us, or meet the moral standard of God’s righteousness. It is in that sense that man is depraved.
Let us cast aside the Hobbesian view as justification for state intervention once and for all.