If You Like Rights, Liberty, and Economic Opportunity, Celebrate Christmas
Those of us enjoying the multiple benefits of societies built upon respect for our human and economic rights ought especially to pause to give thanks for God’s incarnation as Christ, celebrated this week.
There is thankfully now a rich literature from which we can learn how the many principles and laws we take for granted today would have remained undiscovered had Christ not lived.
Joseph Schumpeter, Murray Rothbard, Alex Chafuen, and others have well documented the earliest roots of modern-day Austrian economics in medieval Christian scholarship—including the development of just price theory, the subjective theory of value, support for capitalism and free trade, and sophisticated thinking on money and banking (including fierce criticism of fractional-reserve banking).
[The Spanish Scholastics] taught morals and theology at the University of Salamanca, a medieval city located 150 miles to the northwest of Madrid, close to the border with Portugal. They were mainly Dominicans or Jesuits, and their view on economics closely parallels that stressed by Carl Menger more than 300 years later.
A short overview is in this excellent interview with Jesús Huerta de Soto, and Rothbard’s “New Light on the Prehistory of the Austrian School”.
These findings by Christian scholars were no accident: their discoveries were possible only because of their theology: believing that the universe was created and ruled by a just, loving, and rational Creator who had endowed His creatures with minds with which to come to know Him, they set out to discover His laws.
The sociologist Rodney Stark’s accessible ouvre traces the history of Christianity and its myriad contributions to the well-being of humanity. Among my favorites is his showing why women were especially drawn in great numbers to convert, as, for example, Roman noblewomen. The early Christian church accorded women unusual status and rights, in stark contrast with Roman society, where women were subject to their families and husbands, often forced to abort (generally a death sentence to the mother as well), and married off prepubescently to much older men. Romans also widely practiced infanticide, especially of girls. Christian women held positions of authority in the early church, chose whom they married (and married much later, as adults), and could hold title to and control of their own property.
Early Christian practice of charity and care for the sick, as during frequent plagues, also contributed to growing segments of Roman society converting, alarming the Emperor Julian so much that he ordered pagan priests to emulate their practices:
the impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.
Stark also shows Christian theology as the font of reason, and lays lie to the claim that Christianity, reason, and science are somehow at odds. He documents, for example, that as with the politicization of science around today’s global warming hysteria, the much-repeated dispute between Galileo and the pope was largely a matter of political power, rather than scientific debate. (Similarly the “flat earth” myth, largely a construct of the late-nineteenth century debate over evolution. The primary medieval astronomy textbook was titled, On the Sphere.)
A short version of Stark’s thesis is in “How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and the Success of the West.”
None of this, of course, is a denial that much cruelty and stupidity has been carried out in the name of Christianity. Thus the need to look primarily to the source: Christ, his life and teachings, and their implications for how we each ought to lead our lives.
We are fortunate to have many great thinkers’ assistance in doing so, but, ultimately, it is a matter between God and each of us. This week we celebrate His making that relationship more possible, reaching out to all His creation in coming to earth as man.