A Terrible Sermon on Economics – Part 1

Whenever an American conservative Calvinist decides to preach on politics you can be sure you’re going to get as much shallow and cheap theology as you’ll get when listening to a liberal Episcopalian talking about homosexuality. Jeff Durbin, a few months ago, put out a sermon on the topic of “socialism” and “biblical economics.” Just as expected, it was full of misapplication of scriptures, full of shallow and fallacious theology and really beneath anyone who takes biblical theology seriously.

Most of his argument comes from the commandment not to steal. To make that argument apply to questions of Economic institutions or legal arrangements he tries to derive a defense of private property as foundational from scripture. After reading the story of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5 he says:

What’s the issue there that I’m pointing to? He says this: it was yours, you could do with it what you please, it belonged to you. But the issue was how they lied about the proceeds.

Then a little bit later:

Don’t you know when you have that it belonged to you; you could do with it as you pleased why did you lie? There is that derivative sovereignty of personal ownership.

Was the account of Ananias and Saphira any sort of defense of private property rights as an institution? Or the idea that private property rights are some how natural? No, the most one could get out from that account was that the Apostles, or the Church, didn’t have a right to confiscate land for the Church. There was nothing in that text about the nature of property other than if it is your property (i.e. legally) it’s under your authority, which is almost a tautology. Everyone, from a far left Trotskyist to a Ayn Rand Libertarian would agree with that, if something is legally property, a private organization (such as a church) can’t confiscate it.

I could go further into that verse, it’s connections with the story of Achan, it’s connection with the previous verses in Acts 4:32-37, but I think the point has been made; There is nothing here which is a defense as private property as a natural right. Later on, he makes an argument from Romans 13:

It says in Romans 13 that civil government is given as gods servant, it’s supposed to be the servant of god, not some other god, not some strange god, but the servant of God. And the purpose of civil government is to punish evil, enforce contracts, and organize for defense.

Very interesting, so let’s look at the relevant passages in Romans 13 and see if Jeff is right. Romans 13:

for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Do you see anything there about enforcing contracts? In fact, there is nothing there that actually sets limits, or defines what the role of Government is, other than it punishes the wrongdoing, is for our good, and has the right to levy taxes. There isn’t a sentence there about enforcing contracts, or even organizing for defense, nor is there anything there which defines or limits the role of civil society. Almost right after that he continues with his twisting of scripture:

You didn’t see the early Christians actually organizing different institutions like the department of education. They saw education as the responsibility of each individual family and Church.

This is such a colossally silly statement that it basically argues against itself. The early Christians were not a state, nor did they have any influence in the state, nor were they attempting to have any influence in the state, so what they did or did not do has doesn’t translate at all into what a state ought to do or ought not to do. What does Jeff think the Christians were supposed to do (had they all been socialists hundreds of years before socialism or capitalism existed as ideologies)? Write a letter to the Emperor proposing universal education, and then an institution to run that education, and then propose that they set up that institution?

The fact that they educated in the Church, and everyone involved with the Church means that they did set up an institution like “the department of education” i.e. the Church, it just functioned within its sphere, which was the sphere of the Christian community. There is nothing from that you can translate into what a state should do, any more than the fact that the early Christians didn’t have an army or a police force can translate into an argument that the State shouldn’t have an army or police force.

However, as soon as Christians did start having major influence in civil government, starting with Constantine, universal education became more and more a reality, through State sponsored Church institutions. So not only is the statement a mistake in categories, when the question of public education became relevant to Christianity, the Christians went the complete opposite direction from Jeff Durbin.

Next comes the crux of his sermon, the commandment not to steal:

If something is yours, this is profound, it’s yours, it belongs to you and nobody else. God gave it to you with your own sovereignty over it, and I’ll give you proof, ready: Thou shall not steal. That verse, that commands is meaningless if there is not individual sovereignty over our own things, because thou shall not steal means nothing if something doesn’t belong to you and you can say what happens to it.

This is it. This is Jeff Durbin’s big argument against socialism. Again, just like the previous argument he made, the argument is self-refuting. What society has ever allowed theft? Has there been any socialist, feudal, imperial, capitalist or any society that has ever been ok with theft? No. This doesn’t address at all what property is or what the nature of property should be, or what should be private property, what should be public property, or what belongs in the commons. Taking a bench from a public park is as much stealing as taking a chair from someone’s house. If, for example, a government legislates that you cannot harvest the outside of your field, or harvest twice (I’m not sure, but I think there was a legislation like that some time in history), because those parts of your field are to be left as common property for the poor; that doesn’t suddenly mean that the commandment against theft is meaningless in that case.

Simply put, the commandment against theft has nothing to do with the question of socialism or capitalism or any other kind of economic policy a state might enforce. Saying don’t theft basically means respect property laws, whatever those property laws might be, it doesn’t favor one over the other at all. There isn’t a socialist thinker who has ever existed thinks that society should allow theft, nor (as far as I know) has there been any political-economic thinker who was advocated a society allowing theft.

Next he goes to a parable (important to remember, it’s a parable) from Jesus found in Matthew 20:1-16, and after reading the parable (and giving a Calvinist interpretation of it) he says:

What’s the truth underneath that lesson, it’s an economics lesson, it’s a lesson in personal property. What does it say? It says: the person who owns the land can decide with their own stuff how much they want to give, how they want to give it, don’t begrudge their generosity, they don’t have to give you a thing.

Now you apply that principle today to things like, yeah we’re gonna go there, we’re gonna raise the minimum wage. We’re gonna force business owners to do with their property what the government says’ they ought to do, which means what, who owns the business now? The government and not the individual

Let’s pretend for a second that this parable is somehow normative for civil government, or that it’s even applicable to civil government (it’s not). What is it actually saying? Is it saying anything about any regulation of wages? Is it saying anything about the negotiation of wages prior to the job? No, the point is that the worker shouldn’t begrudge the owner for paying someone more for absolutely no reason, i.e. his philanthropy.

Jeff Durbin defends taking this parable as normative for civil government by saying:

Jesus can’t make the parable as an analogy if it’s sinful at bottom. So for an example Jesus can’t give a parable to draw an analogy by using a sinful adulterous thief as the example of the story and saying that’s like how God is.

This statement really caught me aback, has Jeff Durbin read any of the Gospels? Has he read Jesus’ Parables? For example Luke 11:5-8.

Is it righteous to demand goods from your neighbor, keeping him up at night, nearly to the point of extortion?

Or how about Luke 16:1-9?

16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

In this parable the good guy is the servant, and what did he do? He stole from his master on behalf of the debtors, changing their bill so that they owed less so that when he lost his job he would have friends in high places. So is this normative? Of course not.

This rule that Jeff Durbin made up, that somehow Jesus’ parables ought to be normative in what they literally say, because he can’t use an example that is sinful for a good purpose, is completely made up. This made up rule is just his way to pretend that Jesus is somehow here preaching against regulations on wages.

But again, even if you do take the parable as normative, it has nothing to do with regulation on wages.

Jeff Durbin’s definition of socialism that he goes from is this:

The involuntary community ownership of production

Whose definition is this? Where did he get it from? I don’t know any socialist who would define socialism that way. The term “involuntary” is rather strange, when is property ever ‘voluntary’? Housing in my neighborhood is privately owned, that’s how it’s organized, is that voluntary? Can I decide myself whether or not that’s how housing is organized? How about the public park down the street? That’s community owned, is that involuntary? The definition is completely confused, by definition ownership is involuntary once it is defined, if something is organized privately, the owner can do with it as they decide, if it organized by the community they can decide what to do with it.

Then he gives a definition of slavery:

The ownership of one’s production

Now here Jeff Durbin gets even more confused, where does he get that definition? He’s just making it up out of thin air. Slavery is when a person is owned. If slavery were defined as Jeff Durbin defines it, then all wage labor would be slavery, since wage labor is a contract in which the capitalist owns the production of the worker, i.e. slavery. However neither socialism, or slavery, is defined as Jeff Durbin is defining them, by almost anyone. Then after his definitions he makes his point:

What is the government doing today in society they own your production, before you even get your money what do they say, I’ll take it.

His point is your production is your paycheck, and the government is taking it, in other words enslaving you. The stupidity in this kind of arguing is shocking; if my dog suddenly gained the ability to speak, and said something like what Jeff Durbin is saying, I’d keep that dog locked away so he doesn’t embarrass himself by saying something that stupid in public.

We’ve already seeing the fallacy in thinking that slavery is owning someone else’s production; if that were true then capitalism would be slavery. But Jeff is also assuming that one’s wage equals one’s production, basically it seems here that he’s adopting the labor theory of value, which is strange for a libertarian like Jeff. Your wage is not your production, what your production is, is whatever you produce at work, your wage is what you agreed to be paid, by the hour, for giving your labor to your boss for a certain amount of time, so that your labor is at his disposal.

What are you paid in? You’re paid in currency. Why do you accept currency as payment? Because it’s recognized as legal tender, and a mechanism of exchange/store of value, why is it recognized as legal tender? Because the government issues it and accepts it as payment for taxes.

Money only is money because you can pay your taxes with money. Also how about your house? Why is it your house? Because you bought the house, why does that make it your house? Because you have a deed saying it is yours and that you purchased the house, why is that deed binding on the rest of society? Because the government recognizes it as defining property.

But if taxation is slavery, then what about the times Paul speaks of paying your taxes as a good thing, and that the authorities are due their taxes? What about the taxes and tithes in the Torah?

The next post will go over his worst offense and sum it all up.

A Terrible Sermon on Economics – Part 1

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