Just to remind interested parties that we are running leadership and communications workshops throughout July and August and still have a couple of open spots. We usually programme over weekends but in particular circumstances we can be flexible.
Dear Deputy, The future jobs, tax revenues and economic growth that we expect to derive from Foreign Direct Investment are being put at risk due to recent movements by Revenue against the principle of tax certainty.
Tax certainty, which is the ability of an individual or entity to accurately and confidently assess and predict how much tax they will pay over a set period of time, is considered by both the OECD and the IMF to be one of the cornerstone principles of a fair and just tax system. Beyond that it is an integral principle for businesses, who must be able to tell how much tax they should pay in any given territory in order to accurately assess its suitability for investment, particularly long-term investment. A study of large, international investors, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, stated that 87% of study participants rated fiscal certainty as important when making decisions as to FDI.
In countries in which tax certainty is part of the system it is possible for companies to invest large sums, over long periods, as they have the capability to trust that the territory in which they operate will deal fairly and justly with them. Ireland has historically held the principle of tax certainty as a key competitive advantage, which we have drawn on heavily in attracting Multi-National Corporations [MNCs] into the State. By positioning the 12.5% rate as a constant fixture of Irish political life, rather than merely as a low-rate of tax, the Irish state has been able to move beyond the idea of Ireland as a low corporate tax economy and onto the idea of Ireland as a place where you can invest for 30 years because you have certainty as to what you will pay on any investment. As the Taoiseach himself noted on his trip to Washington in March, where he was talking to the US Chamber of Commerce, “There are actually countries in the EU that have a lower tax rate than us…I think what we offer is certainty…and I think that gives investors or potential investors that certainty you need if you’re making the 20 or 30 year multibillion-euro investment in an economy. You want to know the fundamentals of those policies are going to stay the same.”
Unfortunately, recent developments in Ireland have undermined the principle, and the good work that the Irish state and politicians have done to uphold that principle. We believe these developments hold the potential to cause significantly harm, both reputational and economic, to Ireland.
We are aware of multiple recent instances in which Revenue has upwardly reassessed the tax payments of an MNC, despite those companies having paid tax at an accepted rate for years without Revenue raising any issues with their payments, and which would therefore have a legitimate expectation they are paying the correct rate of tax. In some of these instances, the MNCs in question reached out to Revenue and requested clarification as to why their tax payments were reassessed, and were simply told that Revenue would provide no further information and that the MNCs could appeal the decision if they so wished.
Here we are not talking about companies which have obviously tried to defraud or short-change the Irish taxation system, in which case the upward reassessment may have been a legitimate and reasonable response, but rather companies who have acted in good faith, who sought direction and advice in order to be tax compliant and now face a bill for “underpayment” along with interest and penalties. This is not due to an error on their part, but rather because Revenue simply changed its mind as to how their taxation should be paid
Two recent examples of this are Analog Devices, who employ 1,200 people in Limerick, being served with a notice of assessment for €43 million and Perrigo, which is headquartered in Dublin as a result of acquiring Elan in 2013, and faces a fine of €1.6 billion. Both of these cases are under appeal.
This new, aggressive approach to upward reassessment of previously paid taxation has not gone unnoticed abroad. The Hill, an influential paper covering Washington and American political affairs, has covered the issue, in a manner frankly not beneficial to Irish interests, and we in the EBI have fielded multiple queries from American think-tanks and individuals concerned that Revenue’s new behaviour could be harmful to American MNCs headquartered within Ireland and who are concerned about the potential impact of this behaviour on planned expansion and job creation.
The Fiscal Assessment Report published earlier this month by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council highlighted the dependence of the Irish state upon a very small number of corporate entities, with the ten largest corporate entities paying €5 billion of the total €10.4 billion gathered in corporation tax receipts in 2018. That of course doesn’t include the impact of the 229,057 people directly employed by multi-nationals, 58% of whom are based outside Dublin. As Minister Donohoe very correctly pointed out in 2016, “One in five workers in the private sector work for companies that are located here in Ireland due to foreign direct investment.”
Given the scale of employment by MNCs Revenue’s movements against tax certainty are not merely harmful to MNCs, but rather represent a real and tangible threat to the livelihoods of Irish men and women, all across the country. Revenue’s newfound vigour for unorthodox and aggressive reassessments has undermined a key competitive advantage of this country, an advantage which played a substantial role in the prosperity that this country has achieved over the past decades, and an advantage which politicians, of all political stripes, have fought hard to ensure remained in place.
Our concern is that Revenue has been moving, and will continue to move, towards a position which is harmful to Irish interests, Irish economic growth, and offensive to the principles that should underpin a just and equitable taxation system, both for corporate entities and for private citizens.
Standing as we are on the edge of a No-Deal Brexit, and aggressive tax moves from President Trump to encourage repatriation of US companies overseas, that Revenue should now seek to pursue a policy which undermines our hard-won reputation as one of the most attractive countries in the world for large-scale long-term investment, would seem to be short-sighted and deeply misguided
The Board : Edmund Burke Institute
June 27, 2019
Dear G20 Finance Minister,
On behalf of billions of taxpayers and consumers around the globe, we, the undersigned, urge you to oppose international efforts to weaponize global conversations about digital commerce to tax tech companies. Imposing higher taxes on tech companies would lead to higher prices on consumers and force millions of small businesses to scale back their online advertising activities. Consumers, businesses, and governments would be better served by a light-touch tax and regulatory regime that encourages growth and innovation.
In the aftermath of the June 9th meeting of G20 finance ministers in Fukuoka, Japan, households and businesses across the globe have expressed concern that the proposed “closing of loopholes” in digital taxation will entail higher prices on digital products such as search engines and social media platforms. A December 2018 PwC report found that, by most estimates, a significant share of any new digital tax is likely to be passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices. This does not bode well for the billions of global citizens forging important business connections on Facebook or furthering their educations via Google and countless online academies.
Government meddling in the digital domain would only increase barriers to entry for startups looking to compete with more established tech companies. Virtually every digital service tax proposal envisions a tax based on revenues, regardless of the level of cost that companies incur. Young companies with a sudden influx of consumers and investors may still have growing pains ahead of it, such as network buildout costs and regulatory compliance issues. Taxing these start-ups will make it harder to overcome these challenges and compete for consumers’ attention and dollars.
Countries such as the United Kingdom and Spain will soon implement digital service taxes, and assure their worried citizenries that only the largest, most financially successful companies will foot the bill. Yet in the tech sector, companies can “go viral” very quickly, and the prospect of hitting a “tax wall” can deter investors from making the necessary moves to support the next social media or search engine giant. If digital service taxation becomes a global phenomenon, the tech sector’s upstart culture of innovation will give way to a placid environment dominated by just a few companies. To keep the digital domain vibrant and responsive to the needs of billions of global consumers, we strongly urge you to oppose any international regime of digital service taxation.
Tim Andrews Executive Director IGO Watch
Dr. Raza Ullah Hon. President Alternate Solutions Institute (Pakistan)
Grover Norquist President Americans for Tax Reform (USA)
Dr. Barbara Kolm Director Austrian Economics Centre (Austria)
Brian Marlow Executive Director Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance (Australia)
Graham Young Executive Director Australian Institute for Progress (Australia)
Bjorn Tarras-Wahlberg Chairman Asia-Pacific Taxpayers Union
Steve Pociask President / CEO The American Consumer Institute (USA)
Norm Singleton President Campaign For Liberty (USA)
Scott Hennig President and CEO Canadian Taxpayers Federation (Canada)
Andrew F. Quinlan President Center for Freedom and Prosperity (USA)
Jeffrey Mazzella President Center for Individual Freedom (USA)
Rocio Guijarro Saucedo Gerente General Cedice Libertad (Venezuela)
Tomasz Kołodziejczuk Centrum Kapitalizmu (Poland)
Andrés Barrientos Executive Director Ciudadano Austral Foundation (Chile)
Tom Schatz President Citizens Against Government Waste (USA)
Iain Murray, Vice President for Strategy and Senior Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute (USA)
Yaël Ossowski Deputy Director Consumer Choice Center (International)
Katie McAuliffe Executive Director Digital Liberty (USA)
Gary Kavanagh Executive Director Edmund Burke Institute (Ireland)
Jason Pye Vice President of Legislative Affairs FreedomWorks (USA)
Federico N. Fernández President Fundación Internacional Bases (Argentina)
Roxani Kargakou Managing Partner Greek Liberties Monitor (Greece)
Jon Coupal President Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (USA)
Federico Rabino Director Ejecutivo Instituto Fernando de la Mora (Paraguay)
Tom Giovanetti President Institute for Policy Innovation (USA)
Masaru Uchiyama President Japanese for Tax Reform (Japan)
Mattie Duppler Senior Fellow for Fiscal Policy National Taxpayers Union (USA)
Carl Szabo Vice-President & General Counsel Netchoice (USA)
Gia Jandieri Vice-President New Economic School (Georgia)
Jordan Williams Executive Director New Zealand Taxpayers Union (New Zealand)
Lorenzo Montanari Executive Director Property Rights Alliance (USA)
Anders Ydstedt Chairman Svensk Tidskriff (Sweden)
Michael Jäger Generalsekretär Taxpayers Association of Europe (Europe)
David Williams President Taxpayers Protection Alliance (USA)
John O’Connell Chief Executive The Taxpayers’ Alliance (United Kingdom)
Maryan Zablotskyy Director Ukrainian Economic Freedoms Foundation (Ukraine)
Nisa Bahçeli President Vergi Araştırmaları Topluluğu (Turkey)
James L. Martin Founder/Chairman 60 Plus Association (USA)
Saulius “Saul” Anuzis President 60 Plus Association (USA)
“It would be good to be able to say that we should dispense with visions entirely, and deal only with reality. But that may be the most utopian vision of all. Reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind.” – Thomas Sowell
A Conflict of Visions, written by Thomas Sowell and first published in 1987, is a book about why it is that political questions, unlike scientific questions, do not appear to have any one answer that is acceptable to everyone. This is an ever present problem that persists even when everyone involved has the same goal in mind, to promote the public good.
Sowell tells us that this can be explained through the theory that there are two primary ways to view man and the interaction between man and society; the constrained and unconstrained visions. These two visions are naturally in conflict with each other due to their incompatible assumptions of the nature of man and society; the conflict between them giving rise to the book’s title.
The constrained vision tells us that man is limited by his past, his present, and his physiology. Man is inherently imperfectible, and is driven primarily by self-interest. The unconstrained vision holds that man, whilst perhaps limited by his past and physiology to some degree, is innately good, or at the very least a blank slate, and that the evils of society are products of institutions and structural incentives rather than a reflection of man’s basic nature or limitations. One is immediately struck that this is very much not a new argument. It is particularly reminiscent of the debate on the state of nature that followers of the likes of Hobbes and Rousseau engaged in.
Sowell also writes of a type of vision he calls the ‘hybrid vision’, of which he offers three primary examples;Marxism, Utilitarianism, and Fascism. These ‘hybrid visions’ are visions of the nature of man and society that take from both the unconstrained and constrained visions and create something purely their own. Sowell does state that this can be done in either an internally consistent or internally inconsistent fashion, and that this will rather depend on the theory in question at any particular time. To give an example of a hybrid vision Sowell states that while Fascism took symbols and certain beliefs from the constrained vision, the actions and the systems that fascists sought to create were products of the unconstrained vision. They used key aspects of the constrained vision (loyalty to one’s people, obedience, etc) and placed them under the control of a totally unconstrained leader who would reshape society at will to remove imperfections and lead their people to the promised Utopia. Sowell makes an interesting argument here that, due to this synthesis of visions, both the political left and the political right see Fascism as being a product of an adversarial vision. Essentially he argues that the left say that Fascism is a far-right doctrine, whilst the right say that Fascism has a central component of socialism in both concept and execution, and thus it cannot be right-wing. Sowell makes the further observation here that the existence of hybrid visions and inconsistent visions, means that it is rather simplistic to say that the unconstrained vision is left-wing and the constrained vision is right-wing. He argues that Marxism is left-wing but does not purely contain elements of the unconstrained vision whilst libertarianism is generally considered to be right-wing, but in many aspects also holds to an unconstrained view of human nature.
It should come as no surprise then, that the book is filled with quotations and commentaries on the work of Hobbes, Locke, Rawls, Galbraith, Edmund Burke, Hume and Rousseau. It is a credit to Sowell’s eloquence that these sections of the book, despite being quite lengthy in presentation, do not slow the pace of the book or give one the feeling that the book is designed purely for academics who are intimately familiar with the field. The book is very much designed to be read by people of varying ability and knowledge whilst still conveying its core message: that good people can disagree on political matters for understandable and defendable reasons. Sowell’s eloquence, and his ability to discuss complicated matters in a fashion the majority of people can understand, does highlight one of the reasons why he is considered so important to the modern Classical Liberal movement. He is both able and willing to put himself into the public discourse and to argue for the correctness of Liberal ideals in a fashion that the public can understand, as opposed to the ever growing tendency of academics to communicate in a fashion that ensures only other academics understand them.
A large portion of the book concerns itself with interactions between those who hold these different visions and how they appear to each other. Sowell argues that holders of a constrained vision look at those who hold an unconstrained vision as being naive, perhaps dangerously so, but ultimately believe them to have good intentions. Holders of an unconstrained vision are mostly unable to actually understand the viewpoint of holders of a constrained vision. To holders of the unconstrained vision, Sowell argues, institutions do not provide positive incentivisation or structural opportunity to citizens, or at least not as much as their theoretical replacements could and would provide. Anyone who fights for the continued existence of these institutions or societal structures, despite the clear evidence that these institutions privilege one over another and are integral to the continuation of societal inequality, must be one of two things. They may be compromised, in that they benefit from the system and so wish to perpetuate it, or they may be bigoted, in the sense that they want others to be oppressed by the system even if they do not personally benefit from the system. Conversely the constrained vision is, in its treatment of political, societal and cultural institutions, essentially Burkean in outlook. It accepts that these institutions are imperfect, but that this imperfection does not invalidate the societal good that they deliver, and that whilst change is in an integral part of life, both individually and as a societal or cultural entity, one cannot just charge headlong into the void and expect things to work out. Essentially in the constrained vision there are no solutions, only trade-offs. Any attempt to fix these institutions, without recognition of the benefits they provide, can lead to a situation in which the replacement does not work because it does not fully understand what it is replacing. Reading through Sowell’s description and explanation of the constrained vision, I can’t help but feel that, in many ways, the constrained vision could be summarised through the phrase ‘the perfect is the enemy of the great and the good alike”.
One must wonder if Sowell’s theory, for all his professions that he holds the constrained view of mankind, does not reflect a certain utopian view of man’s rational nature and/or behaviour. By positing that everyone holds particular views of human nature, he showcases a view of mankind that is profoundly rational, and that views political conflict as being about balancing these visions through continual change and development. A more pessimistic individual could argue that politics is mostly a matter of identity and that the vast majority of people’s opinions on political matters are not sufficiently understood by even the people who hold them, and that politics is more an attempt to signal to their peers or to otherwise fit in with a predominant political or social culture or subculture. Sowell’s theory privileges rational debate, but one could easily argue that on many political issues rational debate is not possible due to the emotive nature of certain topics, the desire to preserve one’s identity by aligning with one’s chosen group, and the entrenched political narrative. Consider the abortion debate. One side could call you a murderer, the other could call you a slaver. Both sides are equally committed and sincere in their adherence to their viewpoints, but at the same time, both viewpoints can be challenged quite easily.The nature of the problem resembles a Sorites paradox and ensures that no incontrovertible final answer will be reached on the subject. I do wonder if one could take every pro-life activist, and every pro-choice activist, and get them to explain their opponent’s viewpoint in the strongest form possible, and why that argument is incorrect and they themselves are correct, how many of them would even be aware of the arguments that their opponents hold, beyond the most base level of understanding.
Having said that, one must query if Sowell’s theories actually apply to everyone, as he argues, rather than just to a particular ‘intellectual elite’ that has considered their stance on human nature. It is possible that Sowell is fundamentally right in his hypothesis that political differences, at a certain high-level of conceptualisation, are driven by differing views of the state of nature, but that these same theories are then taken by politicians and policy formulators and fed through the medium of the public (along with their attached biases) before becoming actual policies. Sowell does discuss this point briefly, and he proposes that vision can be separated from one’s idea of how society should be and what politics should be adopted. He concludes that adherence to a particular vision is very much not a 0-1 system, and that people hold these visions to varying degrees. In fact, Sowell argues that it is impossible for a person to hold a particular vision absolutely.
Finally, whilst probably not Sowell’s intention, one does wonder if these visions are byproducts of the Christian history of the West, one finds in arguments on the state of nature, and the theory of constrained and unconstrained visions, what is essentially an argument about man’s biblical fall from grace. This might lead the reader to ask a series of questions; Is our understanding of man being unconsciously shaped by the long infusion of Christian concepts into the collective tradition of the West? Does the constrained vision speak of the Fall whilst the unconstrained speaks of recapturing Eden? It is worth questioning, and Sowell does not, at least in A Conflict of Visions, if these visions are due to this Christian history. If so, what about the visions in other regions of the world, particularly those who were not conquered by one of the religions of the Book. Do the Chinese, for instance, hold different ‘visions’ due to the Confucian infused culture; does India hold different ‘visions’ due to the impact of Hinduism on their cultural development? One gets the feeling as one goes through the book that Sowell is aware of this but he never really delves into detail on the subject.
Overall A Conflict of Visions offers rather a lot to those who are interested in learning more about why political differences exist, both in its own unique work and in Sowell’s explanation of more classical theories concerning man’s place in society and man himself. It is a rather fair book in its handling of both visions, despite Sowell’s public statements of adherence to the constrained vision. Beyond that, and beyond the joy of simply reading Sowell’s work, it also conveys important practical lessons as to how we should consider our political opponents and how they view the world. A libertarian might agree with a left-wing individual on a number of social issues, and that may lead the left-winger to think the libertarian is essentially a left-winger, but if they’re counting on the libertarian chap to support all left-wing policies, they may be unpleasantly surprised with the libertarian’s answer after they’ve asked him to support government-led market intervention.
If you only know people’s actions, but not the drive that creates them, you do not truly know that person, and you will not be able to predict their behaviour with any certainty outside of previously observed experiences.
“Visions are like maps that guide us through a tangle of bewildering complexities. Like maps, visions have to leave out many concrete features in order to enable us to focus on a few key paths to our goals. Visions are indispensable—but dangerous, precisely to the extent that we confuse them with reality itself.” – Thomas Sowell
Our Director, Gary Kavanagh, recently sat down with Professor Bo Winegard to discuss his recent article, ‘The Twilight of Liberalism?’ which deals with the challenges facing liberalism, the benefits it has brought society, and the steps that should be taken to strengthen it moving forward, lest it die.
They discuss the nature of liberalism; different conceptions of freedom; the use of shame in maintaining social cohesion; the breaking apart of overarching identities and the rise of identity politics; technology and social sorting; what can be done to strengthen liberalism and stop a possible death spiral; and if UBI is a complete solution to increased automation.
Below is the text of an open letter delivered by the Property Rights Alliance [PRA] to WIPO Director General Francis Gurry on the 26th of April, 2019 to mark World IP Day.
The EBI is proud to be one of the signatories of the letter, alongside 76 other think tanks and institutions spread across the world.
REACH FOR GOLD: IP AND SPORTS
Today, April 26, 2019, we the undersigned think tanks are delighted to celebrate World Intellectual Property Day with you. Intellectual property rights (IPRs), without a doubt, are essential to the continued flourishing of human life and economic growth throughout the world. Whether it is a new life-saving medicine, a catchy tune, or distinguishing mark, all intellectual properties are products of ingenuity and human labor. In this regard, intellectual property rights are fundamental human rights that ensure innovators have control over the fruits of their labor. We applaud all of your efforts as Director General of WIPO to fulfill the organization’s primary purpose “to promote the
protection of intellectual property throughout the world.”
This year’s theme, Reach for Gold: IP and Sports, is emblematic for World IP Day. Competition, just as it is for sports, is a core principle behind intellectual property rights.
When IPRs are protected, markets are formed that encourage innovators to compete
to make the next breakthrough product consumers demand– be it training equipment,
a smart sensor, or a new media platform. In this way, athletes and innovative markets
are sure to always go faster, stronger, higher! Neither innovation nor sport can exist
without enforceable property rights.
IP Rights Boost Trade
It is now the norm for international trade agreements to bolster intellectual property
rights. These standard setting arrangements allow the competition that sparks “the
fire of genius” to spread across borders. When countries implement strong IP
protections included in trade agreements they see greater imports of R&D intensive
products, as well as renewed competition from inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs
from the global marketplace. It is increasingly imperative that, as firms spend a greater
share of revenues on researching and discovering new innovations, that more
countries enforce IP protections in order for their economies to avoid being left
IP Rights Grow the Economy
Strong IP protections are vital to creating and maintaining high paying jobs, which are
essential to dynamic economic growth. IP-intensive industries are responsible for
generating nearly 40 percent of the combined U.S. & EU GDP and employ about 40
percent of the workforce in the U.S. and nearly 28 percent in the EU. That accounts
for more than 105 million jobs. Workers in these industries are paid 46 percent more
than those employed in comparable jobs in non-IP-intensive industries. In fact, per
capita income in countries with robust property rights is 20 times greater than percapita income in countries with weak protections.
By far the largest employer in both regions is the trademark-intensive sector which
includes sports, retail, real estate, as well as pharmaceuticals, and computer
programming industries. This underscores that the global IP-economy is not confined
to a few tech hubs, but accessible to all countries that choose to enforce IP rights and
allow firms to develop and defend reputational marks.
IP Rights Spur Innovation
For the last eight straight years, world patent applications have continued to break
records. An amazing 3.17 million applications were filed in 2017, each one promising
to relegate a problem once thought of as impossible to the pages of history. Recent
patents include a medicine to treat multiple sclerosis, a method to make batteries
more efficient, and even an A.I. based patent that can simulate human debates.
IP rights make it possible for firms to invest billions into frontier technologies like A.I.
and space transportation, allowing careers paths and industries to develop before
consumer products are available. Such technological progress ensures the next
generation will enjoy longer, healthier lives.
IP Rights Fight Fakes
Counterfeiting and piracy continue to plague the world economy. The most recent
estimates find global share of counterfeit goods rose from 2.5 percent of global trade
to 3.3 percent, or $509 billion, while the cost of online piracy is on its way to reaching
$52 billion. These poisoned products not only fund criminal enterprises and damage
brand reputations, but cause physical harm to consumers. Counterfeit medicines, for
instance, have been linked to disease progression and drug resistance.
The UN Can Help Protect IP
The United Nations plays an important role in guarding the global innovation
ecosystem that propels humanity forward. IP rights are discussed across many UN
agencies that deal with matters of human rights, global health, and development.
Regretfully, IP rights are sometimes attacked in UN bodies, where we have seen shortsighted proposals to undermine IP rights in order to achieve other goals. We regret
that there is not a broader understanding in UN agencies of the well-documented role
of intellectual property in driving health, invention, and prosperity around the world.
We, therefore, urge WIPO to do more to help inform international debates and ensure
that the voices of innovation are heard at every level. We call on WIPO to take action,
namely to: 1) step up efforts to educate policymakers about the ways that IP enhances
economic growth and development; 2) assist countries in strengthening their IP
regimes and protections; and 3) ensure that other multilateral organizations – such as
the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, and the UN
Development Program – promote policies that recognize the value of IP rights for
enhancing human welfare and achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable
By Dr. Samuel Gregg
“Of all things, an indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous, and it is always worst in the time when men are most disposed to it.”
It’s hardly a secret that free markets have fallen out of favor among conservatives throughout the West in recent years. Whether it’s Britain’s Theresa May, Germany’s Angela Merkel, or Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, many center-right politicians have quietly re-embraced some of the economically-interventionist polices that prevailed between the 1940s and the 1970s. Likewise, important segments of conservative intellectual opinion, such as the American journal First Things, have substantially qualified their formerly strong support for market economies.
There’s many reasons for this. One is growing worries about some of the apparent social and cultural effects of free markets. Another is the undeniable spread of economic nationalism, fueled by the sense that free trade has undermined entire communities’ well-being. Nor did the 2008 financial crisis help the cause of free markets inasmuch as economic liberalization was perceived to be the prime culprit.
I use words like “apparent,” “sense,” and “perceived” because, in many of these cases, what matters is perception. The reality is often rather different. Unfortunately such realities—such as the extent to which the 2008 recession was facilitated by factors such as flawed monetary policy and government efforts to socially engineer the American housing market—don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve among some conservative skeptics of markets.
But, I’d suggest, this turn against markets among some conservatives is principally derived from a desire for something that has grown in our era of economic globalization. And that is a widespread and perfectly reasonable yearning for stability. The immense economic growth and poverty-reductions generated by global markets requires acceptance of the constant upheaval that’s part-and-parcel of free competition and economic creativity. In the long-term, the overwhelming majority consequently become much wealthier. The downside is considerable instability, and all of us need and want a certain degree of certainty in life, including its economic dimension.
This presents particular dilemmas for conservatives. After all, conservatism emphasizes the benefits of permanency, order, tradition, and strong and rooted communities. Conservatives who believe that free markets are the most optimal of imperfect economic systems thus need to rethink about how to integrate their case for markets into the broader conservative agenda. And here, I’d argue, the man whose thought gave birth to modern conservativism has much to teach us.
Though widely considered modern conservatism’s intellectual progenitor, Edmund Burke’s economic views generally receive sparse attention. Burke’s conservatism is mainly linked to his religious orthodoxy, his defense of what he called “ancient liberties,” and his relentless criticism of the French Revolution’s destruction of many of the institutions that protected freedom and social order.
Rather fewer people know that Burke was a committed free trader, a strong defender of private property, and a skeptic of government economic intervention. He once described Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as being “in its ultimate results,” “perhaps the most important book ever written.” Burke’s literary executors, French Laurence and Walker King, even claimed that Burke “was also consulted, and the greatest deference was paid to his opinions by Dr. Adam Smith, in the progress of the celebrated work on the Wealth of Nations.” When Smith’s magnum opus appeared in 1776, Burke reviewed it for the widely-read Annual Registrar. He sang the book’s praises as a text which managed to achieve that most difficult of goals: to “teach things that are by no means obvious.”
Yet even before The Wealth of Nations’ publication, Burke was arguing the case for greater commercial liberty. In parliamentary debates during 1772, for example, he insisted that the best way for society’s poorest segments to receive enough bread was through a market free of legislative interference. Over twenty years later, in the midst of Britain’s epic struggle with Revolutionary France, Burke penned a carefully-worded memorandum entitled Thoughts and Details on Scarcity to Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger in 1795. Here he explained why the state generally shouldn’t interfere with the market-price of goods, services, and labor.
Burke’s strong belief in economic liberty and the institutions and habits which sustain it are not in doubt. The real question is why he held these views. It turns out that Burke’s support for extensive commercial freedom wasn’t chiefly based upon what we today would call libertarian premises. His main reasons for embracing free markets were those of a conservative.
Focusing on the Short-term is Irresponsible
In many ways, conservatism is all about the long-term. The conservative looks back into history to recall the wisdom of the past. Conservatives are also skeptical of responding to immediate concerns, real or otherwise, by acting in defiance of truths knowable by reason and/or historical experience. For the conservative, this outlook is a matter of prudence, perspective, and good government.
These concerns are all found in Burke’s most lengthy reflections on the importance of economic liberty, free exchange, and free prices. The context of his 1795 memorandum was one in which William Pitt’s government was confronted with a scarcity of food throughout Britain after a poor harvest. Like governments everywhere in time of crisis, Pitt’s administration was under enormous pressure to “just do something.”
Some were proposing that the government address the problem by granting subsidies to bolster laborers’ wages. Others wanted Pitt to establish an effective government monopoly of the grain-market in order to set fixed-prices for this commodity. These schemes was accompanied by a rhetoric which decried wealth-differentials and emphasized growing antagonism between the poor and the rich. The implication was that if Pitt didn’t act, Britain could witness the type of extreme social disorder which had manifested itself in France.
Part of Burke’s advice to Pitt involved explaining the economic difficulties with the proposals under consideration. Burke repeated, for example, his 1772 argument that a free market in grain was more likely to meet the needs of the poor than other economic arrangements. State efforts to manipulate the market price of commodities, he noted, were bound to make it harder and harder for consumers and producers to “mutually discover each other’s wants.” Attempts to fix the distorting effects of such interventions upon the price-mechanism via more interventions would, Burke said, just make it even more difficult for people to know the real market-price of any given commodity. The result would be misallocated resources and growing shortages.
Burke’s memorandum also argued against demonizing the large wealth-disparities associated with the accumulation of capital. Capital-accumulation was, he claimed, essential for the type of investment that facilitates the growth which helps those whom Burke called the “laboring people” to find work and escape poverty. In his own lifetime, Burke said, he had noticed how the spread of commercial freedom and the growth of accumulated capital had helped increasing numbers of once-poor people become wealthier, to the point whereby they were developing their own capital-reserves.
These observations were not simply those of someone who grasped the often-counterintuitive insights of modern economics as expounded by Smith. They were also conservative inasmuch as they cautioned governments against acting rashly to appease those who don’t know—or don’t care—about the likely negative impacts of particular policy-choices upon the nation’s well-being.
It wasn’t a question of being elitist. To Burke’s mind, it was a matter of helping policy-makers and electorates understand that certain economic truths (what Burke called “laws of commerce”) don’t change in the face of what he called “idle tales”, “foolish good-intention,” and “the malignant credulity of mankind.” In such conditions, the government’s first responsibility to the people “is information”—i.e., the truth—“to guide our judgment.”
A focused, but limited State.
There is, however, another aspect of Burke’s free market beliefs which are rooted firmly in his conservatism: his view of the state’s role vis-à-vis the economy.
In his Thoughts on Scarcity, Burke articulated the principle that he had developed as a way of determining which particular functions were legitimately carried out by governments. As he put it:
the State ought to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State, namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to the public prosperity.
This was not an attitude of a priori hostility towards government. For Burke, what mattered was that the functions being performed by the state really were tasks which only governments can accomplish: national defense, the administration of justice, law and order, etc. While Burke was prepared to “admit of exceptions” to this rule, they remained exceptions.
Burke’s reference to “public prosperity” might seem to open the door to extensive state interference in economic life. Burke, however, made it clear that the state’s economic role was limited by three considerations.
The first was that governments should hesitate before embarking upon legislation which seeks to influence directly the exercise of legitimate property-rights and the workings of private contract. Excessive government involvement in these areas, he maintained, could substantially undermine (1) the security provided by property and (2) the freedom of individuals to negotiate agreements in ways which mutually benefit all parties to a given contract. Resolving any subsequent disagreements among the relevant parties, Burke commented, was the judiciary’s responsibility: not government ministers.
Second, Burke thought that the more national governments involved themselves in local and provincial affairs, the more distracted they would become from carrying out their primary responsibilities. This conviction was reinforced by Burke’s third and related consideration: that certain welfare functions were better undertaken by non-state entities.
“Without all doubt,” Burke regarded assistance to the needy as “a direct and obligatory duty upon Christians.” At the time, that designation included almost everyone in Britain. Nonetheless, he added, “the manner, mode, time, choice of objects, and proportion are left to private discretion.”
Burke’s point was that London-based officials simply couldn’t know enough about the nature of poverty in Inverness or Galway to act effectively. By contrast, private individuals and groups close to a given problem were likely to possess deeper insights into the nature of the difficulty than national governments. The latter, Burke implied, should be far more humble about their capacity to assist those in need.
All these reflections on Burke’s part add up to a classic conservative case for the free market. Far from being doctrinaire, Burke’s position underscored the importance of prudence, paid attention to crucial insights outlined in Smith’s Wealth of Nations, insisted that local communities and non-state institutions remain free to address local problems, and stressed that governments should focus on their core functions and have the humility to know their limits. Above all, Burke believed that economies needed to be grounded in certain truths about the human condition which utopians and romanticists of all stripes are inclined to ignore.
If that doesn’t amount to a distinctly conservative argument for free markets, one which compliments the rest of conservatism’s political agenda, I don’t know what does.
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute and a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He is the author of 14 books, including “Becoming Europe” (2013) and “For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good” (2016).
It is with great sadness that we’ve noted the recent passing of Congressman Walter B. Jones Jr, at the age of 76. Congressman Jones was a conservative stalwart who fought hard for what he believed in but was open to recognising when he was in the wrong, and who then fought hard to make those mistakes right.
He was a constant reminder of the humanity of public figures and the difficulties of the choices that can face politicians, both due to their impact upon others and the impact of making those choices upon the politicians themselves.
Below is an excellent obituary of a man who spent his life working to make America great, and below that is an older NPR piece which highlights the Congressman’s strength of spirit.
Requiescat in pace
Evil and God: reflections of a former atheist
In my early twenties, before my conversion to Christianity in 1976, I did not believe that our world offered entirely convincing and reliable evidence for the existence and goodness of God.[i] The universe, I thought, might have always existed, without any need for an external cause to bring it into being,[ii] and the argument for God from ‘benevolent design’ seemed obviously flawed since it could not be reconciled with the existence of evil and suffering.
To quote Britain’s best known 20th century atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell: “it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience has been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku-Klux-Klan or the Fascists?”
That was said in 1927, in his lecture, “Why I am not a Christian’, to the South London Branch of the National Secular Society, but the same point could have been made in nearly every decade of recorded history. Poverty and tyranny, slavery and war, hatred and violence, have disfigured our world and blighted human life for millennia, and continue to do so. Even if we are lucky enough to live in relatively free, prosperous and peaceful societies, life for all too many is blighted by crime, family breakdown, drug addiction and mental illness. And to this cup of human suffering, of course, must be added disease, disability and death, as well as ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’. Indeed, for many of us, the suffering and death of animals – especially that of much loved family pets – is especially hard to bear, and seems to make a mockery of all religious claims that we live in a universe created and governed by a just and loving God.
My previously scornful attitude towards ‘religion’ and Christianity
Consequently, however much I hoped, at times, that there was a God, the problem of evil, including the bloody history of religious persecution, made me scornful of the claims of Christianity. I was strongly inclined to the belief that religious faith required the rejection of reason in favour of ‘revelation’, meaning by that, a ‘leap in the dark’ based on insufficient evidence or even fraud. Even after becoming a Christian, it took a while before I was able to shake off the embarrassment I felt about admitting to others my belief in God and the truthfulness of the Bible.
My emotional hostility to ‘religion’ in general, and Christianity in particular, was only overcome when I started reading the writings of C.S. Lewis, whose own journey from atheism to faith I could identify with, and about which I have written elsewhere. What impressed me most about Lewis’s advocacy of Christianity was his ability to engage with all the strongest and seemingly most insurmountable objections to religious faith, especially that arising from the problem of evil. That, for me, was extremely important, having experienced intense grief and shock when my father, whom I greatly loved, died completely unexpectedly when I was only 17.
As Lewis points out in the relevant passages of his book, Mere Christianity (and elsewhere), we cannot complain about evil and suffering, and disbelieve in God on that basis, unless we are first convinced that the moral standard by which we judge and condemn our world is an objective one. Just as a line is only ‘crooked’ when compared with a straight line, so an act, or person, or situation, can only be condemned as ‘unjust’ when measured against a prior standard of perfect justice from which it deviates. But if evil cannot even be defined as such except in relation to the goodness to which it is opposed, how does this truth affect the debate about God and the problem of evil?
The short answer is that it changes everything. To start with, where does our standard of goodness, truth and justice come from? If, as all too many people claim to believe, it is purely subjective, like our taste in food, clothing, or entertainment, we cannot use it to criticize others or justify our complaints about the universe. But in that case, of course, our moral argument against God’s existence and goodness, based on the problem of evil, collapses. If, on the other hand, we regard the moral standard ‘written on our hearts’ as an eternally true and objective insight into reality, justifying our conviction, for instance, that murder, theft and oppression are wrong, and love is better than hate, we again face the question: where does this objective insight into reality come from? From what or from who do we derive our sense of moral obligation, as well as our knowledge of Right and Wrong?
The self-destructive logic of atheism in relation to the problem of evil
It is in relation to this issue, about the ultimate source and origin of human consciousness and moral values, that atheism fails the test of credibility and truthfulness, something I first learned from the opening chapters of the revised 1960 edition of C.S. Lewis’s brilliantly argued book, Miracles, as well from his much simpler and more limited treatment of this issue, for a ‘popular’ audience, in Mere Christianity, his collected wartime radio broadcasts of the 1940s.
Let me therefore try and explain, in my own words, the nature of Lewis’s central argument against atheism, not only because it challenges us to think clearly about the problem of evil, but also because other philosophers have reached similar conclusions about the issues Lewis raises.[iii]
If, as atheists insist, there is no God or Divine plan or purpose behind the universe, and humans are purely physical beings – biological machines without souls or spirits – the implications are logically self-destructive for atheism, especially for its rejection of God because of the ills of the world and the existence of pain and suffering.
This is so, because if atheism is true, it means that all our thoughts and values, and all our deepest convictions, including our belief in the validity of logical argument and the existence of mathematical and scientific truths, are simply an accidental by-product of our cerebral biochemistry and the mindless movement of atoms. We may think, therefore, that we have free will, and with it, that inner freedom to weigh evidence and judge between conflicting arguments without which there can be no successful pursuit of truth, or acquisition of knowledge, but we are deluding ourselves. In reality, because we are biological machines and the un-designed product of a godless, accidental and mechanical universe, all our reasoning and conclusions are nothing more than the unplanned end result of a long chain of entirely random non-rational physical causes over which we have no control. In other words, if we have no souls, and no spiritual connection to God as the ultimate source of reason and truth, it follows that our brains, and therefore all our mental activity, is imprisoned within a process of physical determinism that discredits all thinking. We cannot be sure that any of our thoughts correspond to reality, moral or scientific, since we are biologically conditioned to think them regardless of whether they are true or not. But by discrediting all thinking, including their own, atheists cut their own throats philosophically. Their view of ultimate reality is therefore self-refuting.
Another shorter and simpler way of summarizing Lewis’s argument against atheism is to point out that we do not accept the truthfulness of any statement or assertion if it can be shown to be the result of purely irrational causes, like a brain tumour or some emotional crisis. But if atheism is true, all our thoughts and chains of reasoning, including, again, our belief in the rules of logic, have a purely non-rational physical cause; therefore we have no reason to believe in their truthfulness, including that of atheism. The disbelievers in God have sawn off the branch on which they were sitting. Their conclusions are no more credible or meaningful than the print out from an un-programmed computer.
The damning admission of a prominent atheist and Marxist scientist
Ironically, enough, recognition of this central truth is not limited to Christian philosophers and thinkers like C.S. Lewis. Many years ago, J.B.S. Haldane, a Marxist scientist and one of Britain’s most prominent 20th century atheists, also recognized the logical difficulty of trying to provide a purely reductionist physical explanation of human consciousness and thought. Writing in 1928, he admitted: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” [iv]
This admission, of course, radically undermines the philosophical credibility of the entire ‘worldview’ of scientific atheism. By that, I mean the idea that some unguided process of cosmic and biological ‘evolution’ can offer a complete and satisfactory explanation of the existence of life and the universe, as well as providing an objective basis for moral values. It cannot in fact do so, because all scientific experimentation and knowledge involves that very process of logical reasoning whose existence and reliability cannot be accounted for on atheistic assumptions. That is why it is a fallacy to argue, as so many atheists do, that the natural sciences – the systematic study of physical Nature – provide a truer and more objective source of knowledge about our world and our selves than ‘Religion’.
To ram this last point home, here is a relevant quote from a paper C.S. Lewis gave to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944: “…those who ask me to believe this world picture [of scientific atheism] also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based…Granted that Reason [God] is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology [of atheism] as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on bio-chemistry, and bio-chemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.” [v]
And all this brings me back to the argument against God arising from the problem of evil.
If we are only the accidental inhabitants of a random and purposeless universe, and cannot therefore attach any ultimate meaning, truth, or significance to our thoughts and lives, how can we justify all our moral indignation about evil and suffering, and use that as a stick with which to beat religious faith?
You may protest, in response to this question, that whether or not we are created beings or just biological accidents, is beside the point, since we can simply choose to value life and attach meaning to our existence. Then, if we do that, the value of life, and respect for it, becomes an entirely objective non-religious foundation for our moral convictions and our hatred of evil. And this in turn means, you may argue, that it isn’t actually irrational for atheists to get angry about the pain and injustice they see all around them, and to reject belief in God on that basis.
The transcendence of the Moral Law and its religious implications
But this objection simply misses the point by evading the following dilemma. Should valuing and respecting life be regarded as a self-evident moral obligation, a ‘truth’ everyone must acknowledge and a ‘law’ everyone should obey? Or is it just a subjective expression of our feelings? If it is the former, as most people rightly believe, surely that does suggest that our minds and thoughts have a connection with some spiritual Reality outside ourselves and the material universe, otherwise there is no escape, as we have seen, from the physically deterministic self-destructive logic of atheism. In other words, you cannot demonstrate the ‘wrongness’ of any evil thought or act unless the moral standard to which you appeal when making that judgment has an eternal and objective character whose presence in our lives cannot really be accounted for if nothing exists except physical matter, space, and time.
Let me try and explain in more detail my reasons for making this assertion, because it is so important to understand, and lies at the core of the moral argument for God’s existence and goodness.
If you think about it, an eternal standard of right and wrong, and the sense of moral obligation it generates, has a strangely transcendent quality, because it is independent of time, place, culture, social class, and even physical existence. For example, it remains somehow eternally true, does it not, that raping a woman, torturing a child, or enslaving another human being, are evil acts deserving punishment, whether we are rich or poor, live or die, and regardless of where we come from and what culture we are part of. Even if our universe and all its forms of life came to an end tomorrow, the ‘truthfulness’ of these moral assertions would remain unchanged, their moral ‘light’ undimmed. ‘Truth’ would still somehow remain Truth, and ‘Justice’ Justice, even if nobody were left alive to acknowledge it.
Consequently, if we are to take our moral convictions seriously, and therefore justify our passionate indignation about the sad and evil state of so much of our world, we must first recognize that ‘Truth’ and ‘Goodness’ are permanent, unchanging and ultimate categories to which we somehow owe unconditional allegiance, as Plato famously believed. But if this is the case, their eternal, transcendent, and imperative character suggests that the Moral Law ‘written on our hearts’ is in some sense Divine. And this brings me to the final step in my argument from morality to God, from atheistic indignation to religious (and in my case, Christian) faith.
It is obvious, is it not, that our awareness of truth and goodness, right and wrong, is inseparably connected with our minds and wills, since we ‘grasp’ these concepts and respond to them with our intellect. Given that fact, it seems reasonable to conclude that the apparently divine character and status of the Moral Law is also related in some sense to an eternal Divine Intelligence. In other words, truth and goodness are rooted in God and express His essential and changeless Nature. Or to put it another way, God is not just our Creator, but also goodness, truth, love, (and beauty) personified, and therefore the eternal and objective source of all that is precious in the world and in human existence.
The liberating truth: our hatred of evil implies God’s existence
In the end, then, we discover the wonderful and liberating truth that we need not despair when our minds are overwhelmed, and our hearts sickened, by the sight of all the evil and suffering there is in the world. The very fact that we react so strongly and passionately against cruelty, lies, and injustice, and wish to heal the sick, protect the innocent, and comfort the bereaved, is powerful evidence that we are not, after all, biological robots adrift without hope in a meaningless universe. Rather, the certainty of our convictions and the intensity of our feelings reveal the presence within us of an Inner Light that not only illuminates our minds and softens our hearts, but also challenges us to acknowledge its Divine Source and co-operate in the struggle to put our world to rights, starting with our own selves.
To quote C.S. Lewis again: “The defiance of the good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative: for if mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realized this, he could not go on being indignant. The fact that he arraigns heaven itself for disregarding them means that at some level of his mind he knows they are enthroned in a higher heaven still.” [vi]
Reading the works of C.S. Lewis not only revealed to me the shallowness and superficiality of atheism as a response to the problem of evil. It also removed the blind spot that had previously prevented me from properly appreciating the strength and validity of the argument for God from intelligent design.[vii]
Influenced by Bertrand Russell, I too readily assumed that the existence of evil and suffering simply cancelled out the evidence for intelligent and benevolent design commonly presented by Christian philosophers. End of discussion! But why should it? At the risk of stating the obvious, does the fact that badly designed buildings exist prove that there are no good architects, or that the materials from which such buildings are made self-assembled? Does the presence of cruelty and hate in our world suggest the non-existence of kindness and love, somehow nullifying its reality? Of course, it doesn’t. How, then, should we view the apparent conflict between two apparently equally compelling sets of evidence about the possible relationship between God and our universe?
Well, before trying to answer that question, it is worth noting first of all just how extensive and compelling is the evidence of intelligent and benevolent design in Nature. It is in fact everywhere if we care to look at what is under our very noses. Bees making honey, the organisational activity of ants, birds building nests, sexual reproduction, the immune systems of human beings and animals, our digestive systems, the biological information software of DNA, the incredibly complex structure of even the simplest cell – the list is endless. Indeed, the very existence and progress of modern empirical science has been based on the assumption, confirmed by experience, that we inhabit an ordered cosmos whose ‘laws’ and structures can be described and discussed in the language of mathematics. That is why all or most of the great ‘founding fathers’ of modern science believed in God, and had a healthy respect for the Bible.[viii]
How, then, to return to our central conundrum, should we regard the apparently conflicting ‘messages’ about God that we receive from both the evidence of benevolent design and the distressing reality that we live in a world disfigured by evil and suffering?
Since these apparently opposing sets of evidence do not, as I have argued, cancel each other out, the first obvious point to make is that both of them must somehow fit together like the different pieces making up one overall pattern or ‘puzzle’. So what kind of pattern or ‘puzzle’ might that be?
Conflict between intelligent design and existence of evil reconciled
Until I read Lewis, it never occurred to me to give serious consideration to one possible answer to this question, namely, the Biblical one: that our world was created by God, and was originally ‘good’, but has been spoiled. Something has gone wrong.
Like most people who’ve grown up in our secularised post-Christian culture, I used to accept, completely uncritically, the idea that modern science had somehow discredited the Bible, especially the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, with its apparently fanciful story of creation followed by the disobedience and resulting ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Its tale of a lost Paradise, of a fall into sin from a state of original innocence and goodness, seemed impossible to reconcile with the Darwinian notion of humankind’s evolutionary progress from prehistoric ‘savagery’ towards ‘civilisation’. In any case I disliked the message the story in Genesis seemed to convey. It was a typical example, I thought, of the hostility of ‘religion’ to freedom and knowledge, since it seemed to present God as a cosmic tyrant determined to keep men and women in a permanently retarded state of childish ignorance and blind obedience to ‘Authority’. That, at any rate, was the picture presented to my mind and imagination by my reading of atheist thinkers like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell, and it erected a wall of prejudice in my heart against Christianity.
Reading C.S. Lewis, by contrast, soon brought that wall of incomprehension and prejudice crashing down. As he pointed out in his book, The Problem of Pain (1940), because prehistoric man is only known to us by the crude material objects he made, people too readily and falsely assume that our earliest ancestors were intellectually and morally inferior to us, and for that reason alone we ought to reject the Biblical explanation of the origin of evil. But this makes the mistake of confusing technological advance with moral and intellectual progress, when in fact there is no necessary connection between them. Nazi Germany, after all, was a more technologically advanced society than 19th century Britain, but nobody would suggest that it was a freer or more civilised one!
To go back to Lewis, and to quote him: “The whole modern estimate of primitive man is based upon that idolatry of artefacts which is a great corporate sin of our own civilisation. We forget that our prehistoric ancestors made all the useful discoveries, except that of chloroform, which have ever been made. To them we owe language, the family, clothing, the use of fire, the domestication of animals, the wheel, the ship, poetry and agriculture. Science, then, has nothing to say for or against the doctrine of the Fall.” [ix]
Not only, then, has science nothing to say for or against the Biblical story of the Fall, but there are also at least two good reasons for taking it seriously and believing in its veracity.
The evidence that the ‘Fall of Man’ was a real historical event
The first is the curious fact that we human beings appear to possess an inner moral code we cannot shake off yet seem strangely unable to obey. We denounce evil and complain passionately about its existence, yet we too are stained by it. We are angered by the bad behaviour, by the unkind thoughts and actions of others, yet we too fail to ‘love our neighbour’ as we should, and misbehave in similar ways. Worst of all, the better we are, the more we feel the full force of the Moral Law pressing down upon our consciences, the more we become aware of our own constant failure to live up to its demands. Does all this not suggest that some process of deterioration has taken place within the minds and hearts of humankind? What better explanation is there of this strange dichotomy?
The second reason for resisting the temptation to dismiss the Biblical account of the origin of evil is an anthropological one. It is, for instance, an interesting and surely significant fact that a number of ancient peoples and cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, Scandinavians and Chinese, have some kind of tradition of a lost Paradise in the dim and distant past.[x]
The great Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 55-120 A.D.), for example, wrote that “The first race of men, free as yet from every depraved passion, lived without guile and crime, and therefore without chastisements; nor was there need of rewards, when of themselves they followed righteousness.” [xi]
Similarly, seven centuries earlier, the great ancient Greek poet Hesiod (c.735 B.C.) sang of a past golden age when “The immortals formed a golden race on earth.” [xii]
Is this not remarkable? Is it just a coincidence that we find traditions of a lost Paradise outside the Bible? Or does this fact not suggest that some kind of ‘Fall’ or dramatic deterioration in the human condition did actually occur, the confused and fragmented memory of which has left its historic imprint on the human imagination – in poetry, legend, and song.
Having made the journey from atheism to Christianity, and become convinced by a great deal of evidence of the historical truthfulness of the Bible,[xiii] I see no reason to disbelieve in the existence of Adam and Eve or to doubt the details of the story of their testing, disobedience, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.[xiv] This conviction, moreover, is reinforced in my mind by the knowledge that Jesus himself affirmed the historical reality of their existence and fall from grace[xv]. And since I believe, on good evidence, that Jesus was and is God the Son Incarnate[xvi], His testimony about Adam and Eve is, for me, authoritative.
So, drawing all the different threads of evidence together, I have every confidence that the story in Genesis describing the entrance of evil into our world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a true one. The ‘Fall of Man’ was a real historical event, not as I used to believe, a primitive folk tale.
The philosophical credibility of the Biblical view of the origin of evil
What, apart from the moral, cultural, and historical evidence, I find so convincing about the Biblical explanation of the origin of evil and suffering, is its inherent philosophical credibility. And here, in my next paragraph, I can only repeat what I’ve already written in my personal testimony about my journey from atheism to Christian faith.
As C.S. Lewis and other Christian thinkers have pointed out down the centuries, true love involves a voluntary union of free individuals giving themselves to each other for their mutual delight and enjoyment of life and all its blessings. Consequently, when God created the first human beings, He gave them the gift of free will. He did so in order that they and all their descendants might share His life, His love, His joy and His beauty, with Him and with each other. As part of this gift of free will, God also gave human beings creativity and intelligence in order that they might be good stewards of the world in which he had placed them, sharing its joys and adding to its wonders and beauty. But the problem with free will is that it can be corrupted and misused. Our inner freedom to relate to God and other people in harmony and love can be turned on its head. We can choose, instead, to reject our Creator and live only for ourselves. And that, sadly, is what has happened to the human race. It is what lies behind that Biblical story of the ‘Fall of Man’ in the Garden of Eden to which I’ve been drawing your attention. Our ancestors disobeyed God, with deadly consequences for themselves and posterity.
To understand exactly how and why this happened, we need to look more closely at the actual details of the story in Genesis of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.
The key fact upon which we need to focus here was the nature of the original commandment given by God and subsequently broken by them. According to Genesis 2:16-17 that commandment was that “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
The first question to ask is why, in an originally perfect environment, did God confront the first human couple with a prohibition whose rationale they couldn’t possibly have understood, given their original state of perfect innocence and bliss? Since God’s original creation was wholly ‘good’, according to the Bible, the word ‘evil’ would have held no meaning for Adam and Eve, and the word ‘death’ would have been equally incomprehensible. Why, then, give them a commandment whose rationale was not transparent to their reason? What was God’s purpose in doing this?
It was not, as I originally and angrily thought, because God wants human beings to remain ignorant children robotically obedient to His every whim and commandment. Note, in this regard, that the prohibition given in the Garden of Eden refers to the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, not knowledge in the wider sense – like scientific knowledge, or the kind of ‘knowledge’ involved in the development and enjoyment of art, music and literature. No, as Lewis helped me to understand, God’s main purpose in giving this famous commandment in the Garden of Eden was to test the free will of His newly created children in order to perfect their character and relationship with Him. [xvii]
Let me try and explain what I mean by this, because the truth I’m trying to convey here is so vital to any proper understanding of both the nature of God and the moral and spiritual challenge His existence and goodness poses for each one of us.
The moral and spiritual challenge God’s existence poses for all of us
Since God is both our Creator and Goodness personified, the eternal Source of all life and truth and love, we owe Him and ought to give Him our unconditional and joyful love, trust and obedience. We should not only do this out of gratitude for the gift of life and of Himself, but also because questioning and doubting God’s wisdom and motives represents, if you think about it, the highest form of irrationality. As our Creator, God is the ultimate source of our very ability to reason. He is Truth as well as Love and Goodness personified, so how can we ever be justified in thinking that we know better than He does what is good for us and makes for our true happiness? How can we have the presumption to believe that we, looking at life and the universe from our own very limited perspective in time and space, are in a position to judge the actions and commandments of our all-wise, all-knowing and all-powerful Maker – the One who, to quote the Bible, dwells in eternity and ‘sees the end from the beginning’?
For morally imperfect fallen creatures like ourselves, living as we do now in a damaged and suffering world, loving and trusting God as we should is often difficult and painful, especially when we are faced with having to trust Him in trials and situations that perplex us because we cannot make sense of them or detect either His Presence or purpose in them. For Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by contrast, living in harmony with God in a perfect environment, joyfully trusting in God, and obeying His seemingly strange commandment, did not necessitate or involve any kind of suffering. That is why their act of rebellion was so heinous and so tragic. And that brings me, finally, to the other key truth we need to grasp about this tragic story.
The reason why the tree from which Adam and Eve ate is described in Genesis as “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, should, on reflection, be obvious, and it is this. The only way in which, in a perfect environment, our innocent and morally uncorrupt ancestors could obtain any kind of ‘knowledge of evil’ – and therefore of its contrast with good – would be by bringing it into existence themselves and then experiencing its effects. In other words, God’s warning and commandment in the Garden of Eden was not simply a necessary test of free will, but also an infinitely loving injunction given for the protection and wellbeing of His newly created children.
To fully appreciate this last point, and the reasons why turning away from God had (and always has) such catastrophic consequences, you need to understand, again, what, as created beings, we owe to God, our Maker.
As C.S. Lewis tells us most eloquently in his book The Problem of Pain, a creature rebelling against its Creator is like a plant refusing to grow towards the sunlight. It necessarily results in a broken relationship and therefore the separation of that creature from the eternal source of all life, love, truth and happiness. It was thus inevitable that when the human race separated itself from God through that original act of disobedience long ago, in the Garden of Eden, hatred, disease and death came into the world.
Supernatural evil and its role in our world: the Serpent in Eden
Is this all there is to say about the origin and problem of evil? Not quite. The presence of the Serpent (Eve’s tempter) in the Garden of Eden clearly implies that according to the Bible, the ‘Fall of Man’ was preceded by a similar rebellion against God in the angelic realm, which introduces into the picture and our discussion the person of Satan, or the Devil. To some or perhaps many of my readers, the Biblical revelation of Satan’s existence and destructive role in our world, may be hard to accept in this so-called ‘scientific age’, but such a reaction would be irrational. If God exists, as so much evidence indicates, then it follows that the ‘supernatural’ is real, and therefore there is no reason to reject automatically the notion that our universe may contain purely spiritual beings (angels), more intelligent, beautiful and powerful than ourselves, originally created by God, but now in open rebellion against His rule and good purposes for humankind. In any case, the very fact that there is so much evil and suffering in our world, surely offers strong circumstantial evidence for the existence and activity of Satan and his angels, even if one ignores or disbelieves the personal testimonies of many who have dabbled in the occult or been involved in helping its victims.
Funnily enough, Bertrand Russell himself, in the course of his above-mentioned lecture, made the semi-humorous suggestion that he was tempted to agree with those Gnostic thinkers who asserted that our world had been made by the Devil when God wasn’t looking, so the point I’m trying to make merits serious consideration!
Some creationist scientists and theologians believe that the ‘Fall of Man’ damaged the whole of God’s originally perfect creation (as described in the first two chapters of Genesis), introducing death and disorder into the animal kingdom and the natural world. Others argue that even before the ‘Fall of Man’ the natural environment had already been damaged by that rebellion against God in the angelic realm, led by Satan, to which I have just referred. But whatever you may think about this particular and controversial question, one thing seems crystal clear and makes perfect sense to me: separation from our Creator is inevitably self-destructive, so if we want to avoid that fate and get back on the road to Life and to true and lasting joy, we need to reconnect with Him.
An invitation to follow me in my journey from atheism to God
So, as you can see, moving from the atheistic mental universe of Bertrand Russell to a Biblical view of the origin and problem of evil, has been, for me, quite a journey, one of the heart as well as of the mind, and I can only hope that my sharing of it with you so far has aroused your interest and been helpful as well as interesting. If you want to find out more about my journey from atheism to Christianity, and what I believe God has done to reconnect us with Him, please read my personal testimony.
Philip Vander Elst
[i] See my personal testimony, From Atheism to Christianity: a personal journey, available at https://www.bethinking.org/author/philip-vander-elst/page/all
[ii] I failed to understand the cosmological argument for God, whose truthfulness I now recognize and is explored in my paper Does science contradict religion?, available, again, at https://www.bethinking.org/author/philip-vander-elst/page/all
[iii] For a detailed forensic philosophical restatement and defence of C.S. Lewis’s argument, see, for instance, Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defence of the Argument from Reason, (InterVarsity Press, USA, 2003).
[v] C.S. Lewis, ‘Is Theology Poetry?’, paper read to the Oxford Socratic Club (1944), one of a collection of Lewis essays and sermons entitled, Screwtape Proposes a Toast (Fontana Books, Collins, 1974), pp.57-58.
[vii] See, for example, Dr John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007) for a comprehensive and intellectually powerful presentation of the logical and scientific evidence for intelligent design and its connection with God, written by a brilliant Oxford mathematician and scientist. View also his more recent Harvard University lecture, ‘Is it irrational to believe in the supernatural’, currently posted on his personal website at http://www.johnlennox.org/video/belief-in-supernatural/
[x] For more information, see my paper: Philip Vander Elst, Archaeological and anthropological evidence for the truth of Genesis, (available from the author as a pdf), pp.3-6. See also: Henry Morris, The Long War Against God, (Baker Books, USA, 1997), pp.291-296; also: Nelson, Broadberry & Chock, God’s Promise to the Chinese, (Read Books, USA, 1997).
[xvii] C.S. Lewis explored this issue in great depth and with great imaginative power in his famous ‘science fiction’ novel, Voyage to Venus or Perelandra (to give its alternative title) – a gripping story first published in 1953 about an averted ‘Fall’ in a beautiful and newly created world.
“Almost everyone asks philosophical questions- sooner or later.” H.D. Lewis.
It is one of the most familiar images of Christmas- the three wise men on camels against a setting sun- obviously riding westwards. But what is the reality behind the image, and what is its significance? After all, the prevailing narrative says that Christmas is about family, friends, and overeating, and yet we find ourselves thinking about travelers far from home seeking for something, they know not quite what, in a strange country.
In the winter I have often walked along the ridge of the chalk hills- curiously called Downs- that dominate South Wiltshire. If you look south on a clear day you can just see the Needles- the giant blocks of chalk which mark the western point of The Isle of Wight. To the west is Shaftesbury, where Catherine of Aragon spent the night, and where Cardinal Wolsey’s daughter spent her final days. To the north, the rumble of guns from the military training grounds on Salisbury Plain can sometimes be heard drifting through the low cloud that often shrouds the landscape. Through the haze to the east you can sometimes see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral ( which C.S. Lewis called “a thought frozen in stone.”) pointing heavenward in a silent rebuke to earthly concerns . For those who built the cathedral there was clearly something beyond the grind of their daily lives.
Since the Enlightenment a sneering attitude to religion has taken root, and we have lost capacity to talk fluently about spiritual realities. But such concerns were central to our ancestors, and indeed to the whole western tradition, shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, which can ultimately be traced back to Abraham.
In that truly astonishing document- his “Epistle to the Romans” St. Paul asks about the nature of what happened to Abraham. Was Abraham saved by his membership in the Jewish political community, or was he saved by his faith? Paul’s answer is unequivocal. Abraham was saved by his commitment to following God’s will. Like Abraham, Paul had earned nothing, but acquired everything through his trust in God.
Something like the same notion underlies the story of the Wise Men. But with this difference: for Paul the clouds opened in a single moment on the road to Damascus. For him there was no “haze”- the distant became the immediate. The Wise Men received no such single burst of illumination. They question even as they journey. In their case progress was slower, and reflected the fact that unlike Paul they were not saturated in a Jewish background. For them even the idea of a single truth would have been problematic. Whereas Paul was an insider for whom the implications of what Christ taught were clear, the Wise Men are depicted as being figures from the very edge of the civilised world, beyond the frontiers of the empire.
We know less about the Wise Men than we would like. Matthew – the most Jewish of the Gospels – and the only one to mention them-is laconic. They were probably Magi from the Parthian Empire, who lived in a half-Romanised environment in which differing faiths jostled for influence and power. The Magi are sometimes seen as Zoroastrians. But this seems to be a mistake. Certainly, there were some Magi who were Zoroastrians, but they were in fact not followers of any one religion. Rather the Magi were members of a hereditary caste which performed the rites of any religion which happened to be in favour at the moment- and yes, some of them appear to have been star-gazers.
Much has been written about the celestial phenomenon that caught the Wise Men’s attention. We’ll never know the point at which fact stops and symbol begins. But two things are worth noting. The first is that the astronomer Kepler ( 1571-1630 )- a major figure in the history of science- thought he had identified an unusual conjunction which was consistent with Matthew’s account; and secondly that there may well be nothing inherently miraculous in the account- although of course, its timing is suggestive. But historical or legendary this tale raises questions. Is this all just tinsel? Is it just some distant memory of an expedition along the Asian trade routes that linked east and west? Or is there something we can learn here? In short, what do we have here?
We have a story, admittedly only half-authenticated, of a group caught up in the practice of religious rituals in which they did not believe, who saw something in the skies. Whatever it was, and whether they really saw it, or sensed it through the haze of their times, it alerted them to the possibility of a truth the existence of which they had not previously suspected, and who abandoned their comfortable way of life in search of it. That doesn’t sound like a bad example to follow!
Books for Christmas
The philosopher H.D. Lewis was not related to C.S. Lewis and his brother W.H. Lewis. The quote is the first line of his- strongly recommended- “Philosophy of Religion”. ( London, 1965 )
The vital work is Joseph Ratzinger ( aka Pope Benedict XVI )“ Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives”. ( 2012 ) p.89ff. Ratzinger relies on recent German scholarship. An older protestant book is J. Gresham Machen, “The Virgin Birth of Christ” ( 1930 ) My edition is London 1958. Machen despite being a theological conservative author stresses the non-miraculous character of the story about the star. See p. 224
For the Magi, in general, I have been browsing in R.C. Zaehner, “The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism ( London, 1961 ) and in G. Ghirsman “Iran”. ( London, 1954 ) For the trade routes to and from the east along which the Magi must have moved, see Peter Frankopan, “The Silk Roads, A New History of the World .” ( London, 2015) For Rome and the east see Mortimer Wheeler “Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers” ( London, ( London, 1954 ) There were Roman trading stations in The Red Sea, East Africa, India, and perhaps even Vietnam. For a fascinating discussion of the relations between east and west see C. Northcote Parkinson, “East and West ) ( London, 1963 )