C. S. Lewis: Free-Market Advocate
OCTOBER 03, 2012 by HAROLD B. JONES JR.
He seems an unlikely candidate for the title “free-market advocate.” He never thought of himself as an economic thinker, and the number of his readers who would consider putting him in that category is vanishingly small. He is universally understood rather as an apologist for what he called “mere Christianity,” the set of beliefs to which the best of my seminary professors always referred as “the consensus of the first five centuries.”
Be that as it may, C. S. Lewis had much in common with the great free-market thinkers of his time. He is discovered on careful examination to have been writing about many of the same issues as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek and on these issues to have been in perfect agreement with them. The dates are worth considering. Bureaucracy, one of Mises’s critiques of governmental economic intervention, came out in 1944. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom came out the same year. Lewis had released The Abolition of Man only a year before, and in the year that followed his That Hideous Strength made its debut. All these books were written to defend the idea of the individual human being as the locus of rational choice and moral responsibility. Mises and Hayek wrote as economists and Lewis as a lay theologian, but all three wrote to challenge the assault on human nature in the name of a false ideal.
Lewis seems never to have thought specifically about the principles of the free market. He thought a great deal, though, about the importance of accurate premises and careful reasoning, and he could see that many religious leaders had no interest in either. In denigrating the powers of reason, he warned them, you are opening the way for tyranny.
That Hideous Strength had been preceded by Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra (1943). Often referred to as “The Space Trilogy,” these three books have been described by David C. Downing as symbolizing the stages of a mystical quest. They are more easily read as a protest against much of what Lewis saw going on in the world around him. This is particularly true of the last, which (whatever its religious symbolism) is clearly an account of the horrors created by forcible social planning. George Orwell reviewed it for the Manchester Evening Post two years before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four and wrote, “Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Lewis attributes to his characters.”
One of these characters seems in some measure a fictionalization of a person with whom many of Lewis’s first readers would have been familiar. Rev. James Busby, one of That Hideous Strength’s minor villains, is the bursar at Bracton College. A leader in the “Progressive” element, he is among those most in favor of bringing the college into an alliance with the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E. He is jovial, overweight, well-meaning, high-minded, supercilious, averse to careful thought, and in many other ways remarkably similar to the real-life Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. Temple was among the first of the English-speaking clergy to replace Christian doctrines with Progressive politics and thus to become, in the words of historian Paul Johnson, “a part of that huge movement which, as Nietzsche had foreseen” would transform “religious energy into secular utopianism.” He was the condensed human essence of what Nietzsche himself called “that cheapest of all propaganda tricks, a moral attitude.”
Since late in the nineteenth century members of the clergy had been turning in large numbers to all-powerful governments as the solution for the world’s problems. Among Temple’s immediate colleagues there was one who offered the Soviet Union as an example of how socialism produced “comradeship and the zest for efficient public services.” Temple himself described Hitler’s decision to send his armies into the Rhineland as “a great contribution to the secure establishment of peace.” It was at this time, and in a book that is still assigned to seminary students, that the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of “Germany, where all the social and political forces of modern civilization have reached their most advanced form.”
In Nazi Germany, Hayek said, scientists and engineers had “submitted more readily than almost any other class to the new tyranny.” Long before the scientists rendered their obeisance, however, teachers and the clergy had led the way by creating the mindset that made it seem only fitting to kneel before the thrones of power. Bismarck was still busy with the foundations of an imperial welfare state when the psychologist Emil du Bois-Reymond said, “We, the University of Berlin, quartered opposite the King’s Palace, are, by the deed of our foundation, the intellectual bodyguard of the House of Hohenzollern.” They were taking upon themselves, Mises observed, the duty of denying that there were laws superior to governmental decrees, laws in defiance of which no human law could possibly achieve its intended purpose. As German social science began thus to focus on “denying the regularity of economic phenomena,” Germany’s schools of philosophy and theology began to embrace a “higher criticism” that denied the regularity of moral experience and the validity of ancient traditions. The Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian themes of individual responsibility were the first to go.
Up until the 1870s, Hayek observed, western ideals and classical liberalism had been moving east. As the direction changed and western intellectuals began to put their faith in the benevolence of an all-powerful State, religious leaders like Archbishop Temple marched in step. They were soon off on tangents that took them far wide not only of “Mere Christianity,” but even of mere rationality. During World War I, Charles Gore, bishop of Oxford, published a collection of papers entitled Property: Its Rights and Duties. He argued at one point that there was no conflict between property rights and governmental programs for the redistribution of wealth. Once supposedly educated men had begun thus to insist on doctrines asserting that A and non-A were actually the same, demands for the use of force inevitably followed. By the 1940s the British Council of Clergy and Ministers for Common Ownership was insisting that in order to establish socialism “all fundamental opposition must be liquidated.”
What they were demanding was of course a violation of every Christian precept. Devout men, unoffending in their private lives, kind and understanding with the members of their parishes, they were inclined toward violent solutions only because of the foolish ideas they had learned to embrace. They had unfortunately picked up a good many of these ideas from people who claimed to be economists.
The work that first brought Lewis to the attention of a wide public was The Screwtape Letters, which was published in 1942. This book purports to document the correspondence by means of which a senior devil advises his subordinate Wormwood on how to secure the damnation of the human being for whom Wormwood has been given responsibility. Prominent among the recommended techniques is that of confusing the man’s thoughts by means of what he reads. Keep him away from anything carefully logical, Screwtape insists, and as far as possible from subjects dependent on solid reasoning or demonstrable facts. “If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics or sociology.”
Lewis was not alone in his unhappiness with the careless thinking behind much of what passed for economics. Hayek said the field had become a factory of “official myths,” and Mises begged for “common sense and logical clarity.” All three men could see that the most familiar themes on the subject of economics were anything but a display of careful thinking. The London School’s Harold Laski is a case in point. He strongly advocated eugenics, the public ownership of productive capital, and centralized planning. Another example is Francis Townsend, who offered a much-applauded plan for curing economic ills by giving people over the age of 60 an income of $200 a month, provided only that they spent every nickel and engaged in no productive activity.
For men like Archbishop Temple, such ideas seemed to offer a ready answer for the suffering they saw in the world around them. Lewis was in complete sympathy with their desire to alleviate human misery, but he understood that the execution of benevolent intentions requires the expenditure of resources. Since these are in any given moment severely limited, choices must be made. In the most famous of his wartime lectures, he said, “You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this or that good to this or that man. And if you do this good, you can’t at the same time do that.”
He gave the example of a man in a boat, who sees two others drowning. The man wants to help both but must start with one, and while he is saving that one, the other may go down for the last time. If he can save the first, he will deeply regret but need not apologize for the second’s death. He did what was within his power, which was the only power that could be brought to bear on this particular situation. There were at that moment doubtless other drowning men to whom he could have given no assistance even if he had known of them, but they were not his responsibility. He could be expected to do only as much as his own knowledge and resources permitted.
As Hayek wrote at almost exactly the same moment that Lewis was delivering his lecture, the concrete human being can be aware of and deal with but “an infinitesimal fraction of the needs of all men.” Lewis said that the only effective benevolence is that of challenging “each immediate evil as well as we can. . . . [T]he dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.”
In the analogy of the drowning men, the clergy and the politicians they want to influence can be compared with onlookers shouting advice from the shore. They cry, “Save both men! Save both!” And surely, from their safe location, it does seem that both could be saved; what they are asking for does seem to be, in Hayek’s words, “both desirable and possible.” It would in fact be not only possible but easy if there were two boats. Alas there is only one, and the person in it has to make his own best estimate of how to achieve the desired result. Will he save the one who is nearer or the one who seems to be having the harder time of it? The rower sees what needs to be done better than do any of the distant onlookers, but his knowledge is imperfect, and his decision may well lead to what seems to be an unnecessary death.
Limited intellectual and limited material resources: These are the facts of our lives, and the results they produce are seldom perfect from every imaginable point of view. Archbishop Temple saw these imperfections as the result not of the constraints imposed by reality but of a fundamental flaw in human nature. “The centre of trouble,” he said, “is in the personality of man as a whole, which is self-centered.”
There were many churchmen who agreed, and the pulpits of the time rang with cries to turn away from the sin of self-interest. Lewis admitted to being baffled with this point of emphasis. Why was it, he asked, that the church leaders of his time had come to insist on “Unselfishness” as the most important of the virtues? The great saints of earlier centuries all agreed that it was Love. A positive term had been replaced with a negative, putting the emphasis not on “securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves.”
Lewis regarded this as a distortion. “The notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing,” he said, “. . . is no part of the Christian faith.” Nor is there anything sinful about personal preferences. These are simply a fact—probably the most important fact—of human life. They make us what we are. Ants and bees, he observed, “have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive,” but human thoughts turn to private concerns and vanities even in the midst of undertakings that involve hundreds or thousands. The Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae stopped to comb their hair, Archimedes propounded mathematical theorems during the siege of Syracuse, and General Wolfe was found reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” during the attack on Quebec. The repeated tendency to focus on our own interests should not be treated as something surprising or exceptional or worrisome; “it is our nature.”
Personal preferences, moreover, are the source of every human felicity and every valuable service. The most important earthly thing is not self-sacrifice for the sake of grand schemes, but the private happiness of concrete individuals: “The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him.” (Is it unreasonable to imagine Adam Smith’s notoriously self-interested brewer and butcher looking forward to sharing glasses of beer and a steak at the end the day?) In doing what we enjoy and in doing it as well as we can, we offer a service every bit as acceptable as Archbishop Temple’s best sermon. “St. Paul urges people to get on with their jobs,” Lewis says, adding a little later that “The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God” and in service to other human beings.
The motives of those who take offense at these realities spring from something other than a desire to ameliorate the human condition. Certain values, Lewis said, “are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” Those who attempt to stand above these values and insist upon others of their own choosing cannot really be interested in “improvement.” Any objective “better” or “worse” must necessarily derive from the preferences that spring from the facts of human nature, and it is precisely these that social engineers (Lewis called them “Conditioners”) want to set aside.
The German Marxists admitted to this. If human nature conflicts with the demands of socialism, they said, then human nature must be changed. Alas, if human nature really was changed, Lewis replied, what would be left would be something other and less than humanity. Mises agreed: “. . . if a man’s nature is changed, he ceases to be a man.”
But if those coming forward with elaborate plans for the “reformation” of society are not really interested in the cause of humanity, what does motivate them? Simply the desire for power: On this point Lewis is in emphatic agreement with both Hayek and Mises. Hayek: “[T]he desire to organize social life according to a single plan itself springs largely from a desire for power.” Mises: “Every dictator plans to rear, raise, feed and train his fellow citizens as the breeder does his cattle. His aim is not to make them happy but to bring them into a condition which renders him, the dictator, happy.” Lewis in That Hideous Strength: “[Y]ou know as well as I do that man’s power over nature means a few men’s power over other men, using nature as the instrument.” Lewis in The Abolition of Man: The proposed systems deal with people as poultry keepers deal with young birds, “making them thus and thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing.”
Human nature, though, is more stubborn than the henhouse imagery seems to suggest. The great schemes of the past, Lewis observes, have all been foiled by the “beneficent obstinacy” that inspires a person to insist on his view of things. This is the real point of That Hideous Strength, in which the schemes of the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments collapse in a communications breakdown reminiscent of the Tower of Babel story in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. In his review of the book George Orwell complained that this conclusion was so dependent on supernatural intervention as to make it unbelievable. He should have thought more carefully. If he had, he would have seen that the story represents the law of unintended consequences and the way in which personal choices make a chaos of every attempt at social engineering. The confusion of tongues at the last meeting of the N.I.C.E. may be taken as symbolizing the “disintegration of social cooperation” that Mises described as the inevitable fate of every socialist utopia.
If C. S. Lewis can be called a free-market advocate, it is not because of anything he said specifically about economics. It is rather because he believed in the rules of logic and insisted on premises that are fixed realities, which religious leaders and legislators ignore at their peril—and ours.