Christ and Culture

What a Century-Old Austrian Economist Can Teach Us about Peace in a Tumultuous Election Year

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All-consuming. Raucous. Rage-filled. Divisive. Whatever words you choose to describe an election year in the United States, virtually everyone recognizes the turmoil that characterizes our politics. Ironically, each election season politicians preach unity. Campaign events present candidates promising to change the country’s direction from further descent into anger, violence, and division to one of greater peaceful relationships.

Why is the country not more unified and peaceful after multiple cycles of such campaign promises? Economist Ludwig von Mises highlights a major reason for the anger and division we experience in the United States: the use of government, by both the left and the right, to force political opponents to conform with the preferred policies of those in power. Mises’s insight into this phenomenon helps Christians better apply what scripture reveals about peaceful social cooperation.

Limited Government and Social Peace

Ludwig von Mises was a Jewish Austrian economist who taught in European universities before World War Two. At the beginning of the war, he fled to America where he continued teaching. He became a leading 20th century critic of an expansive state because he appreciated free markets and had experienced fascism and communism.

Mises defined the state as “essentially an apparatus of compulsion and coercion. The characteristic feature of its activities is to compel people through the application or the threat of force to behave otherwise than they would like to behave.”[1]

Mises was no anarchist and recognized the good of government in maintaining order. Rather, Mises wanted citizens to enjoy significant liberty. He believed this liberty leads to peace in social relations by minimizing the instances in which people are forced to do what they believe to be incorrect or immoral.

Mises understood this “peace” as more than just the absence of violence. Peace includes freedom of association, especially the free market, in which individuals pursue their unique gifts and interests. Thus, peace is the absence of violence and the conditions in which people can pursue their desired ends.

Tolerance is essential to achieving this societal peace. Mises believed that “a free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper.”[2] Attaining peace, particularly in a diverse society, requires considerable tolerance.

 

We are called to pursue peace in our community, and we require practical wisdom to do so.

Christian Community and Social Peace

The Bible views peaceful cooperation as a moral good both within the community of faith and between believers and the rest of society (cf. 2 Cor 13:11; 1 Thess 5:13; 1 Tim 2:2; Rom 12:18). “Peace” takes different forms in Scripture but includes a conception similar to Mises’s understanding Romans 12:18 addresses this type of peace. Paul writes to believers, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (CSB). Christians are called to contribute to the harmony of the broader community. The recipients of Paul’s letter lived in a difficult political context. Christians in the United States also live in a challenging context. We are called to pursue peace in our community, and we require practical wisdom to do so.

Mises’s Wisdom for the Christian Pursuing Peace

It is no wonder great division and anger exist in our country when we consider the growth of government involvement in the lives of Americans. Elections determine who will control the coercive state apparatus and assert their preferences over fellow citizens. The stakes of elections are too high.

A vast state disrupts peaceful relationships and social coherence. Christians may recognize how ideologies hostile to the faith have unjustly employed coercive state power. But we must also examine ourselves to determine our part in destroying peaceful social relations. How have we as Christians unnecessarily strong-armed others through state action?

Consider the wisdom of Ludwig von Mises as we navigate another divisive, and often overwhelming, election year. Christians should appreciate Mises’s insight that the state is essentially an institution of coercion and is therefore dangerous to harmonious relationships between citizens (especially those holding contrasting worldviews).

Achieving peace in our troubled era requires the promotion of limited government and tolerance. Mises, a great thinker who lived through the politically tumultuous 20th century, exposes and addresses a core contributing factor to our country’s state of tense division. His diagnosis and prescriptions will help us “live at peace with everyone.”

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References

[1] Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011), 55.

[2] Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), 55.

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Jonathan Lawler

Jonathan Lawler

Jonathan Lawler is passionate about how Christianity relates to political liberty. Jonathan is the Archivist and Digital Collections Manager at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary from where he graduated with an MA in Ethics, Theology, and Culture. He also earned an MA from New York University, MMin from Northwest University, and BA from SUNY New Paltz. He is married to Jessica and they have three children.

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