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Capitalism, Religion, and the Free Society

R&L: I understand that your political views have evolved as a result of your study of history.

Johnson: This is true. It’s difficult for me sometimes to separate in my own mind the influence of my historical studies and my observation of the contemporary scene because the two are often intermingled. However, I did become more critical of collectivism in the 60s and early 70s as a result of my study of the ancient world. I learned that although in theory it might be possible to separate political from economic freedom as I once believed, so that you could restrict economic freedom and leave political freedom intact, I came to the conclusion that in fact the two were inseparable. And if you limited economic freedom, sooner or later you are bound to restrict political freedom too.

R&L: Why is that the case?

Johnson: If the state allows economic freedom to develop and renounces its complete monopoly on any sophisticated economic activity, then sooner or later businessmen and entrepreneurs begin to see that they are the best judges of their own particular interest. And so they are no longer prepared to consign to the state total control over their political life, either. The two in practice cannot be separated; they are too intertwined. Though political and economic freedom grow together, they can also decline together.

R&L: Economic freedom requires a certain free exchange of knowledge which overlaps onto the political as well.

Johnson: That is true. One of the things I have learned is that economic efficiency depends essentially on a free flow of information. And of course, you cannot get a free flow of information in a closed society. One of the reasons why I think the Soviet Union came to such a catastrophic end was that people lacked the basic knowledge to make sensible economic decisions. And they lacked that basic knowledge because there wasn’t a market system to provide it for them. If you restrict the free market, you necessarily curb the flow of information or the information isn’t published at all and some of it is falsified. And if you have false or inadequate information on which to make your decisions, those decisions will be bad ones. I think this is one of the fatal weaknesses of the Soviet system. People really didn’t know the price of things, they didn’t really know the true need for things, and therefore they were not necessarily producing the right things or the right things at the right time. They were doing everything in the dark, and in the end, the dark proved catastrophic

R&L: How about the role of religious influences on the downfall of communism?

Johnson: I think the religious element was very important indeed. The vast majority of people in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and so forth, continued to believe in a God which their system said didn’t exist. There was this fundamental conflict right at the very roots of society between the believing many and the atheist, ruling few. Therefore, I think everything else that helped to undermine the regime and the will of those who operated it was strengthened by this fundamental conflict. So I would put religion as the biggest factor in the demise of the Soviet Union. But I’m not sure I could ever prove that by, or at any rate at this stage, by a set of specific historical, factual arguments.

R&L: Tell me about the research you did on the history of Christianity. I understand your initial fear that your faith would be weakened was unjustified.

Johnson: Yes. Well I think I was needlessly apprehensive about this. I remember my old history master at school, who was a very sensible and wise Jesuit, saying that there is no ultimate conflict between religious truth and historical truth. The two are identical. And therefore, in pursuing historical truth you needn’t really fear you will undermine religious truth or your own faith. You may appear to be doing so, but that is temporary. In the long run, historical truth will always re-enforce religious truth.

R&L: Let’s talk about the market and capitalism and particularly the sources of the Judeo-Christian hostility toward capitalism.

Johnson: There are two forms of hostility towards capitalism. One is the anti-materialism of some forms of monotheistic religion. Secondly, there is the case of usury.

First of all, with regard to this anti-materialism, I think this is more true of Christianity than of Judaism. The Jews derive from the Old Testament the notion that the world is a good place, that God made it to be enjoyed by his creatures. Thus, it was necessary for all people to carry out God’s will to play their part in that scheme. And therefore, growing crops, making and enjoying goods, eating the produce of the earth, drinking wine and so on, were not only reputable activities, but in some way necessary activities. So the Jewish religion was not in conflict with the world as such.

Now Christianity was rather different. In the first place, it was a much bigger religion because it embraced many more people who necessarily held differing attitudes toward life. So there were always a large amount of Christians, what I would call a significant minority, who rejected the world or many aspects of it. That Christian minority provided for many forms of religious life, such as the monastic ideal, which would not have been accepted by Judaism, but were highly regarded in Christianity. So, the rejection of materialism was much more emphatic among Christians than among Jews.

In the case of usury, both the orthodox Jews and the Christians rejected it to a greater or lesser extent. And what one saw in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century was a progressive wiggling out of this rejection by cunning or clever or, you may want to call them, altruistic theologians who realized that many forms of usury were perfectly acceptable in terms of natural morality and were absolutely necessary for the growth of the economy. And therefore, they should be justified by moral theology.

R&L: Is there a difference between how the Protestant theologians addressed the issue of usury and the Catholic church’s development on it?

Johnson: This raises the whole problem of the “Protestant Ethic.” There was a view held by a number of historians of the first half of the twentieth century as to why, on the whole, predominantly Protestant countries had embraced capitalism and made a success of it whereas Catholic countries hadn’t. The reason, they argued, lay in different systems of moral theology: Calvinist and Lutheran and other Protestant theology permitted the individual to pursue self-interest in a way incompatible with orthodox Catholic theology.

Now, I think we have come to a better understanding of what happened in the sixteenth century since these historians wrote. The reason why certain countries progressed more rapidly toward a free market, capitalist system was not because their theology differed. The theology of Calvinism tended to be restrictive in exactly the same way as Catholic theology.

The reason is this: in Protestant countries the power of the clergy generally was relaxed and turned back. This was particularly true of the United States and to a lesser extent in Great Britain. In most of Catholic Europe, the power of the clergy continued to be exercised on a very large and detailed scale right up to the French Revolution and beyond. So these countries were less inclined to accept capitalism, markets and other forms of economic organization. In the nineteenth century this dichotomy became apparent and that was the basis on which the early twentieth century historians wrote. We now see that Catholic countries can be just as effective as capitalist countries as any other. And so that old explanation no longer holds good and the clerical explanation is now what most historians prefer.

R&L: Then the separation of the church from the means of state power is the demarcation?

Johnson: That is one aspect of it, yes. I think the United States is an interesting case. It was founded as a religious experiment and has always been a highly religious country, and is so to this day, perhaps the most religious country of all the West. Despite all this, the United States never experienced clericalism. The clergy had really no more power than their congregations were prepared to give them. And that made a huge difference. But in a country like France or Italy, Catholicism had a monopoly. The clergy were very much part of the constitution and had all kinds of rights and privileges. In the United States, the clergy had no constitutional role at all. Whatever role they did have was by virtue of the consent of their congregations.

R&L: What would you say is at the root of the Church of England’s current difficulties?

Johnson: Well, the Church of England in my opinion has never been a majority church in Britain. When it was adopted and conceived in the sixteenth century, it was to some extent imposed by an active minority on the nation as a whole. And when it received its constitutional formulation in the late 1550s, it did so as a result of a compromise which limited still more its popular base because it was never able to include the non-conformists, the Calvinistic elements; they were never really included in the Anglican Settlement. So not only did it leave out the Catholic strain, it left out the non-conformist strain too. It was therefore precariously balanced as a kind of compromise church. It was very effective in parts of the countryside, though not everywhere. On the other hand, it was never an urban church. It never actually spoke for the growing cities. The non-conformists did, and then later the Catholics did, but the Church of England never really spoke for the cities. It still represented the countryside and still does to a limited extent.

Thus it grew up as a church that was sustained essentially by its constitutional position, by the fact that the monarch was its supreme governor, that it was represented in the House of Lords as a right, that it was protected by a whole range of economic and constitutional and legal privileges. All of these preferences kept it going, and of course, still do keep it going. I think that if the Anglican Church was disestablish-ed, if it lost all the material things important to it financially–but not only financially but from the point of view of self esteem and morale–I think it would quickly degenerate into quite a small sect.

R&L: Let’s talk about your study of population movement. Do you think immigration undermines prosperity or encourages a free market?

Johnson: Oh, very much the second. I think immigration was a reason why capitalism took root in certain countries and not in others. Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries received repeated waves of persecuted Protestants, such as the French Huguenots, many people from the low counties and so on, who played a key role in establishing an entrepreneurial climate. Furthermore, it was immigration that gave America such a tremendous start in the economic race. I think that whenever families are able to uproot themselves from their traditional homes and establish themselves in a new one, they always seem to do better, provided they are given a chance by the openness of the political society they find there. They seem to throw off the inert conservatism of the old society and do new things which they wouldn’t have done in their original domicile. They are much more active and original and creative; this has always happened. Therefore, I would say that in general, immigration tends to stimulate economies rather than stifle them.

R&L: What about the cultural impact?

Johnson: Well, the cultural impact is necessarily mixed. Often immigrants bring new and good ideas. They also bring bad ones too. And, of course, they set up tensions which can be culturally bad, as well. With immigration, I think numbers are absolutely critical. If immigration is carried out in numbers which can be easily absorbed, both by the economy and by society of the host country, then its impact is always positive and creative. Where the numbers go beyond a certain point, and set up all kinds of economic and social problems with the host country, then the impact can be very mixed and sometimes, over all, highly negative.

R&L: Do you think Christians today are less inclined to oppose capitalism? And if so, why?

Johnson: This is true because now you have scholars like Michael Novak who have actually taken an enormous amount of trouble and has exhibited great persistence in putting before the public the arguments for democratic capitalism. I think he has done an extraordinary job.

Secondly, there has always been a tendency among Christians to be suspicious of any form of materialism. And therefore, if they think it is possible to conceive of an alternative system to capitalism which will produce the same result and give people high living standards and opportunities, and produce radiant utopian societies, they will obviously choose it. Until recently, for many people, such an alternative appeared to exist in various forms of socialism. This was true between about the year 1800 up to the 1960s.

In the last thirty years, that belief, or as it turned out, that illusion, has been completely dispelled. We now know that there is no alternative to the market system to produce efficient economies and resultant rising living standards. So, almost by default of the alternative, Christians along with everyone else, have been brought around to believing that capitalism has to be accepted and now turn their minds more creatively to seeing how capitalism can be improved.

I think that is an excellent thing because one of the aspects of capitalism that I find most appealing is its built-in mechanism for self-correction. If it does something wrong, it automatically begins to adjust and improve itself. That is its great strength. That applies mainly in morally neutral economic terms. What we can do, if Christians take a deep interest in the workings of capitalism, is supply this additional corrective of moral theology so that all the workings of capitalism are strenuously examined from the church’s point of view.

R&L: If the market is morally neutral, as you argue, how essential is the moral life to a prosperous, free economy?

Johnson: Well, I would say that it is absolutely essential. Precisely because the economic structure of our society is morally neutral, that is, neither good nor bad in itself, it is vital that everyone who works in that society, not least those who aspire to senior positions in it, should receive a proper moral training. If I were asked to mention what was the single greatest weakness in Western societies today, I would say it is the lack of moral training. Moral education is absolutely vital. Whether an economy functions in a moral sense depends not on the inner mechanism of it, but on the people who operate it. If they don’t receive a moral training, they will not act as morally responsible individuals and therefore, the economy will not function in a moral direction.