By Matt Hisrich
I would like to extend my appreciation to ESR for hosting the Willson Lectures, to David Johns for arranging Joerg Rieger’s visit, to Rieger himself for coming all the way to Richmond and presenting, and to Mandy Ford for working to make the lectures available for viewing online. I believe that Rieger’s goals are noble, and his analysis prompted me to give more significant thought to important questions than I would have otherwise. That’s a good outcome for the Willson Lectures, and I am confident that my experience is not unique.
Overall, my main response to Rieger’s lectures was of wanting more – a more robust critique of empire and economics, and more clear paths forward. After reading his book No Rising Tide in preparation for his visit, I couldn’t help but feel that the lack of clarity regarding the clear distinction between free markets and the interventionist chaos we are faced with today undermined both his analysis of economics as well as the validity of the conclusions he reached. My hope as I arrived to listen to Rieger in person was that he would move beyond the limitations of that text.
Unfortunately, this hope was left unfulfilled. From the economic side, I stand by my initial critique of Rieger’s No Rising Tide as he offered little during the lectures to indicate that he does not in fact conflate free markets with a mercantilist system whereby “groups with political power use that power to secure government intervention to protect their interests while claiming to seek benefits for the nation as a whole.” This creates a significant problem in the solutions he presented at the Willson lectures – the political side of his analysis – grow out of this conflation.
As I read No Rising Tide, I was struck repeatedly both by the lack of clear steps toward the new reality Rieger envisions and by an all too uncritical approach toward public policy. He notes that “politicians are democratically elected by the people, while business leaders are not,” as if this puts an end to the discussion about corruption in government, and asks with genuine astonishment, “why would ‘government’ want to take just anything from its citizens, and who is ‘government’ in a democracy if not the citizens?”
These themes were again evident again in the lectures. Few concrete solutions were presented, and those that were raise more questions than real answers. He spoke several times about the importance of community gardens and labor unions, for instance, but it is difficult to see how these alone will begin to transform an empire and economic system that is so pervasive and domineering. His very limited comments on war and their connection to empire and economics should disturb any Friend. His assertion that when Jesus tells his disciples to tell John that the sick are healed and the blind can see is an affirmation of nationalized health care is an impressive leap. At one point during the Q&A period, he was asked how high unemployment should be addressed, and he suggested significant expansion of public sector jobs.
One must ask at this point why someone who speaks to “bottom up” power employs such “top-down” solutions through the state. The essential narrative that Rieger appears to operate out of is one in which the state is there to protect us from corporations. But while I would agree that the empire and economics as they exist today are pervasive and domineering forces in our lives, I wish that Rieger would expand the scope of his definition of empire to include democratic states that collude with business interests.
His appreciation of democracy coupled with his disdain for corporations seems to prevent him from correctly identifying the crony capitalist nature of our economic system. This in turn prevents him from offering a response to empire-as-state that recognizes the incentives within the empire to expand the scope of its power whether employing the language or free markets or that of progressivism. Sadly, therefore, the very remedies he suggests only serve to feed empire further.
In 1978, economist James Buchanan coined the phrase “politics without romance” to describe what he was trying to develop at the time – public choice theory. As Buchanan further elaborates, “Armed with nothing more than the rudimentary insights from public choice, persons could understand why, once established, bureaucracies tend to grow apparently without limit and without connection to initially promised functions. They could understand why pork-barrel politics dominated the attention of legislators; why there seems to be a direct relationship between the overall size of government and the investment in efforts to secure special concessions from government (rent seeking); why the tax system is described by the increasing number of special credits, exemptions, and loopholes; why balanced budgets are so hard to secure; and why strategically placed industries secure tariff protection.”
In order to build upon the work he has already undertaken, deepen his critique, and point readers toward solutions that begin to sever the ties between empire and economic interests, I would encourage Rieger to further explore public choice theory. As Buchanan argues, “Regardless of any ideological bias, exposure to public choice analysis necessarily brings a more critical attitude toward politicised nostrums to alleged socioeconomic problems.” If Rieger or others seek to strengthen their understanding of the connections between empire and economics, I would suggest Anthony de Jasay’s The State and Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan.
One of the definitions of theology is “faith seeking understanding.” During his lectures, Rieger issued a call for truly understanding the nature of the world around us so that we can be effective agents of change. Here’s where I would agree with him wholeheartedly. If at least part of our faith involves helping to bring about a more just and humane world, then there is no time to waste.
Matt Hisrich is the Ministerial Advocate for Indiana Yearly Meeting. He lives in Richmond, Indiana, with his wife and two daughters, and is a member of First Friends Meeting there. Matt is a graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan and ESR, where he received his MDiv in teaching and theology. Prior to enrolling in seminary, he worked with non-profit public policy organizations in Indiana, Kansas, and Ohio.