A response to Dave Arnott

In a blog post by Dave Arnott called the Ten Commandments of Economics, my book All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians is cited. I’d like to respond to a couple points me makes in reference to my book, not the whole article (although I fundamentally disagree with it). He says:

Even though his book is titled, All Things in Common, Roman Montero admits that the passages from Acts 2 are “Limited to the first century and Jerusalem.” (Montero, 2017)

Actually, the entire book was intended to show that the practices described there were not limited to the first century and to Jerusalem. People have claimed that those practices were limited to the first century and to Jerusalem, and the immediate context is that, but saying that I “admit” that they were limited is ignoring the entire argument of my book. So that statement of Arnott is simply a misrepresentation of my position and what I write, nobody could read All Things in Common and come away believing a concede that what is described in Acts 2:42–47 is limited to Jerusalem and the first century since arguing otherwise is the whole thesis of the book. Later on, he writes:

“Thou shalt not steal,” presupposes the validity of private property. You cannot steal something, after all, if no one owns it (Sirico, 2012). Does Acts 2 call for common ownership of property?  It is this ancient notion of voluntary action or freedom that we speak of when we say that the informal communism of the early Christian community was voluntary (Montero, 2017)?  Yes, because, the disciples voluntarily “sold a piece of land,” to give to the community.

There is a meaningful assumption in socialist institutions like police and fire departments. There is an assumption that the tax being expropriated from the home and business owners is used to protect the taxpayer, not someone outside the taxpayer’s jurisdiction. This is what Christian Economists support: The forcible extraction of wealth from citizens to provide services for them. That’s not stealing. But, when a taxing authority forcibly extracts tax from its citizens to use on a project that cannot be traced to creating value for the taxpayer, that’s theft.

Stealing involves violating property arrangements, it doesn’t dictate what those property arrangements actually are. For example, is it stealing to take a bench from a public park? is it stealing to go to public lands and fence off a section and declare it to be now “your” land? Yes, but these are examples of public property and the commons. What is and is not stealing all depends on the economic framework which is dependent on the legal framework. So, for example when Nehemiah demanded that people who had charged 1% interest from their neighbors repay what they had taken in interest or foreclosed on (Nehemiah 5:11–13) was that theft? Would it have been theft if Nehemiah had that repayment enforced? Obviously not, because charging interest between Israelites was forbidden in the Torah. So, what determines what is and is not theft?

The law. So, taxation, or state mandated redistribution of monies (which the state actually prints and issues) is almost by definition not theft because it’s legal, the property arrangements of society include that. The absolute absurdity of this libertarianish definition of theft that would include taxation is demonstrated in Arnott’s second paragraph. If taxation is theft, it’s theft period … what constitutes theft is the taking of property, not the use of taken property, so if it is the case that taxation is theft, whether or not the state uses it for a fire brigade, or setting up bouncy castles in prisons, is irrelevant to the question of whether it constitutes theft; just as whether or not a robber uses the money in your wallet to feed his children or buy vodka has no bearing on whether or not his taking of your wallet constitutes theft (one may be more justified morally than the other, but the theft is in the taking). But taxation obviously isn’t theft. By the way, there’s a very easy way to avoid paying any taxes: don’t use state issued currency, and don’t use the court systems to establish property rights.

Let’s move on to the second paragraph. When we talk about the forcible extraction of wealth from citizens what are we referring to? Taxation of money. Jesus’s response to the “head tax” issue is informative here. People ask Jesus whether or not it is lawful to pay the head tax to Caesar or not, Jesus replies by asking for a coin and then asking whose image and inscription is on the coin, the reply is Caesar’s, he then replies “pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God” (Mark 12:14–17; Matthew 22:17–21; Luke 20:22–25).

Further on he writes:

“The earliest Christians held all things in common not claiming anything as their own,” writes Roman Montero in All Things in Common, a book to which he owns the copyright (Montero, 2017). It’s not covetousness that caused Montero to defend the copyright to his book. It’s his private property, and you can’t steal it, any more than a student in our classes can steal grades from a fellow student. Christians must guard against the effect of wealth on their spiritual lives. There is nothing wrong with owning possessions. The problem comes when the possessions own us (Anderson, 2016). Or, when we want to own what others have. That’s covetousness.

This is a very strange argument. In fact, it’s not really an argument at all. As far as I can tell what he seems to be doing is calling me a hypocrite: I am critical of Capitalism, yet my book is copyrighted. Anyone who has read by book, who as even skimmed it or even read about it, will know very quickly that it is not a book on ethics or theology—I am not telling people what they should do, nor am I even telling society what it should do. All Things in Common is a historical reconstruction, period. The arguments could be accepted by a libertarian Muslim, or a nationalist Atheist, without them having to change any aspect of their ideological convictions, why? Because this book is descriptive of the economic practices of the early Christians, it’s not prescriptive (unless you take the history of Christian economic practice to be prescriptive, but that’s up to your theology and your ethics), it’s a historical work. It is true that I am a Christian and I am critical of Capitalism though, but that’s not germane to the argument and reconstruction found in All Things in Common.

But is it hypocritical for someone who is a critic of Capitalism to use copyright laws? Absolutely not. Right now, in Capitalism, the valuation of an author is measured by book sales, whether or not a publisher will publish you a second time partially depends on how well your previous book does, as measured in sales. This is not news to anyone, it’s pretty straight forward. So even if I am a critic of the system in which everything is measured in dollar values, I do live in such a system, and thus must accommodate myself to it to some degree. Just anyone, in any system, has to accommodate themselves to that system to survive, even if they are a critic of that system. Is it hypocritical for a libertarian to collect social security? If the answer is no, then it’s stilly to think a critic of Capitalism is hypocritical for using copyright laws. Is it hypocritical for someone who would prefer a public healthcare system to buy private health insurance (in the United States as of today)? Obviously not, because the United States has a system where the only way to get healthcare is either through having large amounts of cash or having a private healthcare insurance plan. One must live in the system one finds oneself in, even if one would prefer the system change.

Later on, he writes:

Paul gave specific instructions to Timothy to provide aid only to widows who were “really in need.”  And included criteria for those worthy of receiving aid such as being “well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds” (Kotter, 2014).  The requirements are quite stringent. Some of those requirements were that the widows on the list were to have been long-term members of the community and that they themselves were known to have aided others in need in the past (Montero, 2017). The judgment task for the providers of care for widows and orphans is much different than the entitlement that takes place in present day government programs.

The difference between the early Christian communities and a state are many and they are relevant to this comparison. The early Christian communities did set civic law, they did not issue currency, they did not have an enforcement arm, they did not have borders, they were not even a legal community. The early Christians were an illicit Jewish sect that was largely made up of the lower classes. So, the early Christians had limited funds to execute their “welfare” system, not only that there were people from the outside attempting to scam them … therefore they had to make sure that those who were receiving aid were in fact members of the community who were sincere. Is this analogous to a state situation? No. A state is responsible for all those under its authority, a state, for the most part, prints its own money and actually establishes economic policy for the nation. The first Christians were subject to the Roman state and organized themselves under that framework, doing the best they could to create koinonia in that situation; a state creates the framework. Therefore, there is no analogy.

Dave Arnott also put up a podcast episode where he engages with my book All Things in Common. In it he talks about the fact that my book is for sale by the publisher, as though that were somehow showing that I were a hypocrite, that silly argument I dealt with above. Later on in the episode, he says:

Free market Capitalism is where individuals own the means of production and distribution. Socialism is where the government owns the means of production and distribution.

In Free market Capitalism individuals give, in Socialism the government takes.

That’s a very strange definition, and not any that any socialist would accept, and in fact, any sensible capitalist should accept. Is Saudi Arabia socialist? No, were feudal nations capitalist? No, the Saudi government owns a huge portion of the means of production and distribution and feudal states had property ownership (or stewardship) by individuals. Here are better definitions: Capitalism is where individuals invest money into for profit enterprises to make more money through the marketplace; Socialism (more or less) is an ideology that argues that an economy should be run for the common good and that it should be under democratic control; in fact, socialism is largely a reaction to Capitalism in the modern era. Capitalism, beyond being a system, is an ideology which sees the world, all aspects of economic life, as being made in the image of the market, that human beings maximize gain, and that all relationships are one in which market interaction determines how that gain is maximized and in which every aspect of life is a commodity to be bought and sold. In every system, individuals give, and the government takes … I don’t know how that distinction makes sense, every economy system that has had currency and a centralized state (which includes every Capitalist economy) has had a form of taxation; and in every society that has ever existed, gifts have been given.

He then makes it a point that the bible doesn’t command to take, but to give, and you can’t give what you don’t own. Yes, that is true, the commandments are generally to give and to lend, but they are commandments, which means that it is not an option, your neighbor has a claim on your goods if they are in need (see my book Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Plain, 2019). He then argues that socialism denies the fallen nature, because government officials are fallen, businessmen are also fallen, but are regulated by the market. The market “regulation” is that one must maximize profit, this means that the market rewards selling prostitutes to wealthy patrons more than providing medical care to the homeless, the market regulation only has one measure, and that’s profit and market outcomes. Most socialists don’t say “just hand everything over to the government,” rather they would say that there are different values that we should frame society around rather than just markets and profits. Markets do not just exist in the state of nature, they are created by the state, through the creation of currency through taxation and lending, enforcement of contracts, strict absentee property laws, the creating of standards, the creation of credit, and so on and so forth; so the question is should society create itself to function purely on the basis of market distribution and maximization of profit? Or something else. In any system imperfect fallen people are involved, but that doesn’t mean that the systems should encourage and incentivize greed, and in the case of Capitalism, actually mandate it.

Next, he proports to make an attempt at exegesis of Acts 2:42–47. He argues that because they “sold” the property that means it’s not socialism because the government didn’t own the property and that it is actually an endorsement of Capitalism because they sold it. Now, it should be obvious to everyone what the problem here is …. the Christians were not a government, the government was the Roman Empire which did not recognize the Christians. What the verses describe is actually “small c” communism, and in order to arrange that some Christians sold their property, obviously that isn’t an endorsement of the system any more than someone taking social security is endorsing socialism. In any society the property arrangements are enforced by the government, the first Christians had absolutely no influence on the state, therefore there is no analogy.

But the idea that they would organize themselves communally, with distribution to the poor—substantial distribution—and morally enforce mutual obligations towards each other, but as soon as they have some political power would just switch to a market mentality and support the commodification of society is silly. It’s also historically absurd since as soon as Christians did achieve some political power post Constantine, they immediately pushed for things like public schools, public welfare systems, public healthcare, and so on and so forth.

I could go on dealing with some other (quite bad) arguments he gives in defense of his libertarianism, and I may in the future, but for now I just wanted to deal with his engagements with my book.

 

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