[This review was published in the December 1992 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 47-48.]

 

Beyond Liberation Theology

Ronald Nash and Humberto Belli

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1992

 

Poverty and Wealth: Why Socialism Doesn’t Work

Ronald H. Nash

Richardson, TX: Probe Books, 1991

 

            Ronald Nash, a prolific author and a professor of philosophy and theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, brings together in his writing a mixture of ingredients that has much to commend it to conservative readers and indeed to everyone who cares about the world today.

            Although always remaining clear and easily readable, Nash manages to combine into a pro-market Christian conservatism the insights of a wide variety of schools and thinkers.  His economic thinking is based very much on the Austrian School of Menger, Bohm-Bawerk, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard and Kirzner; his Christian thought is of a sort that causes him to embrace a free society rather than to join those who excoriate it; and his books show a broad comprehension of philosophy and sociology, invoking a wide range of authors.  Moreover, he shows an invaluable grasp of views that are at odds with his own: Marx’s early writings, say, which have been relied on so much by the so-called “humanistic Marxists” of post-World War II vintage; and, as another example, the militantly leftist literature of Latin American “liberation theology.”

            Does the reader want a good introduction to the history, authors and basic positions of “liberation theology”?  He’ll find it (along with an insightful analysis of the sources of Latin America’s long-standing poverty and political upheaval) in the Belli-Nash book on that subject.

            A clear critique of such “interventionist” economic programs as rent controls, farm price supports and minimum wage laws?

            Of the public assistance programs for the poor that have been burgeoning with such disastrous effect since the War Against Poverty?

            Of the still-by-no-means-resolved Social Security crisis?

            Or a look back a few years to critique the causes of, and unsuccessfully attempted interventionist remedies for, the Great Depression?

            All of these, and more, are present in these books, readily accessible to readers and yet seasoned with insights from many excellent minds.

            One of the advantages is that the reader becomes acquainted, through an easy weaving of their ideas into the narrative, with many of the principal names in twentieth century American conservative thought.

            It contains a “cast of characters” that makes one yearn to be back around the table at the Mises seminar in the old brownstone across from Washington Square.  Or the books are a little like attending a vigorous weekend of intellectual give-and-take at a Mont Pelerin or Philadelphia Society meeting.

Some Inevitable Criticisms…

            All of this is not to say that I don’t inevitably have some criticisms.  The Austrian School is given to some oversimplifications and too-broad generalizations that its followers, into perhaps by now the sixth, seventh or eighth generations of the School, seem disinclined to go beyond, largely because a good many of them have taken on a “disciple” mentality.  One of these, for example, is that “the market doesn’t create monopoly, government intervention does”—a far too handy disposal of a difficult issue.  Nash perpetuates some of this, but his intellect is not that of a disciple.  He brings his own intellect to bear and a rich variety of insights.

            On another aspect, there is a point that Nash touches on only briefly in each book, but that I would bring to his and other conservatives’ attention, since it involves dangers of which he and many others have not, in my opinion, been adequately aware.  This is the view he expresses when he says that “within the model of capitalism recommended by this book, groups of people are perfectly free to establish communes and communities that observe common ownership so long as people participate in these arrangements voluntarily.”  Again: “Citizens can unite or pool their resources in small or large endeavors, cooperatives, joint enterprises, or communal settlements….”

            Nash is correct in thinking that voluntarism is the essence of a free society, and that voluntary pooling is not inconsistent with the model of such a society (we do it all the time with insurance).  And yet, we must remain potently aware that nineteenth and early twentieth century socialists such as Proudhon, Lassalle, Fourier, Chernyshevsky and Herzen envisioned entire collectivist models based precisely on such a foundation—and that much socialist thought since World War II has gone back to those “decentralized collectivist” roots.

            The key to understanding the danger to a free society is in knowing that the socialists combine their advocacy of cooperatives, communes and worker-control with an intense hostility toward privately owned enterprises, any form of “absentee ownership” (such as we see in most stock and bond ownership) and “the wage relation.”  In other words, they would allow only the pooling-type of arrangements.  If they have their way, collectives will supplant all else.

            And not only that.  They see such collectives as come to exist within a market economy as prime targets for ideological and political inroads.  There has in recent years been a considerable socialist literature that sees worker-control as the principal vehicle for doing away with capitalism.  Further, cooperatives and worker-control are most often not allowed to develop as a purely voluntary choice; instead, they are encouraged by massive preferential tax treatment and other government intervention that takes away a “level playing field.”  We have seen this especially, in recent years, in the government encouragement given to “employee ownership.”

            So I would say to Nash and all other free-market advocates: Be wary; those of us who support a free society should not be open-ended in our embrace of something that in theory can be consistent with our model but that, given the realities of contemporary ideology, can also be very dangerous.  And it is precisely the seemingly innocuous, democratic nature of decentralized collectivism that can potentially make it a compelling adversary as the world Left searches for new (albeit really quite old) ways to enliven its appeal.  However, my criticisms are miniscule, and I commend the books heartily.

 

                                                                   Dwight D. Murphey