Montreal, February 15, 2005 • No 151




Chris Leithner grew up in Canada. He is director of Leithner & Co. Pty. Ltd., a private investment company based in Brisbane, Australia.




by Chris Leithner

          According to The Australian (10 September 2004), last year a leading member of this country's Liberal-National coalition government "preached the message of the Gospel to 800 worshippers at the Scots Church in Melbourne." This politician "urged a spiritual fightback against the forces of moral decline in the nation" and "declared the answer to Australia's problems was to be found in the Ten Commandments." He told worshippers "we do not have to look far to see evidence of moral decay around us. We see it and hear it in entertainment like rap music, in songs that glorify violence or suicide or exploitation of others. Drugs break up families and marriages. Many addicts end up in prostitution or burglary. These outcomes are the very antithesis of all values set out by the Ten Commandments about how to order society … I do not want to suggest that there are no initiatives the Government should take. But I do want to suggest something [the power of prayer] that is much more radical and far reaching."


          Another politician – a leading member of the Official Opposition, reared a Roman Catholic and now a practising Anglican and a "self-confessed God-botherer" – detects an important shift among members of the Australian public. "I think people are returning to some form of small 'r' religion or embracing a new capital 'R' religion in terms of fundamentalism." To him, and to many others of various partisan political hues, this tectonic shift has vitally important implications: "any close scrutiny of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth would suggest He has a searing message for everyone engaged in policy and public life." (See also "The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician" by Tony Abbott.)

          Alas, religious politicians and devout members of the general public are either completely oblivious to these implications or are utterly contemptuous of this message. Australian politicians – of all parties, at Commonwealth, state and local levels and with very strong, usually unthinking and sometimes strident support from clerics and the general public – have for decades worked tirelessly to cement grave violations of the Ten Commandments into the country's political edifice. In this respect religious politicians and statist priests are, as much as anybody else, agents of moral decline in Australia. They have entrenched violations of the Ten Commandments so gradually into public life that few if any Australians, whether or not they are religious, now recognise the infringements; and they have entrenched them so firmly that if they are brought to people's attention then people either ignore them, rationalise them or indignantly refuse to regard them as violations. These contraventions of the Ten Commandments, as well as religious politicians' and socialist priests' staunch advocacy of these abuses, hold important lessons for consumers, taxpayers and intelligent investors (see, for example, Jacob Hornberger's outstanding article "The Ten Commandments Controversy").

Secular Religion and Political Mafiosi

          Australia has always been and today remains a deeply religious country. But Australians' religion has changed dramatically over the years. Decades ago its major churches included the Church of England, the Church of Rome, the Church of Scotland and the like, and their purpose was to celebrate God's grace, teach the Gospel, help people to live worthy lives and to save souls. Today, these (or their successor) organisations continue to exist but are mere shells. In reality, there is only one – state-sanctioned – religion. It is the "Church of Canberra," the politics of redistribution and retribution, and its purpose is to glorify the state, enrich politicians and support the state's dependents and mascots at the expense of everybody else. Thou shalt not steal – unless you are a politician, in which case your stealing is called "social justice." And thou shalt not kill – again, unless you are a politician, in which case your killing is dubbed "national defence." But never mind: in both instances, politicians' mockery of the Ten Commandments is "in the national interest."

          St Augustine once recounted a conversation between Alexander the Great and a captured pirate. "How dare you molest the seas?" asked Alexander. "How dare you molest the whole world?" the pirate replied. "Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief. You, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor."

          This corruption of morality – tolerated and sometimes aided and championed by virtually all of Australia's clergy – has become so pervasive that not only do Australians hotly dispute that the welfare-warfare state epitomises stealing and killing: they have convinced and congratulated themselves that wars on poverty, drugs, terror, injustice and the like are moral, compassionate and benevolent. By making an injunction to steal a permanent and defining feature of their politics, and by pretending that state-sanctioned stealing and killing reflects their goodness, morality, compassion and benevolence, Australians have perverted the Ten Commandments. True Christians must not enforce governments' unjust and sacrilegious ways – and still less should they try to justify and legitimise them.

Christianity: A Foundation of Western Liberty

          The Liberal-National politician quoted in the opening paragraph is correct to say that the answer to Australia's problems can be found in the Ten Commandments. And his ALP counterpart is also correct to say that any close scrutiny of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth suggests that He has a searing message for everyone engaged in policy and public life. That message is that the Ten Commandments are not negotiable; stealing and killing are immoral; politics as it is conventionally practised (i.e., the politics of the welfare-warfare state) is stealing and killing; and therefore contemporary politics is irredeemably immoral. Further, because Christians can have no truck with immorality, they must have nothing to do with politics as it is conventionally practised. Alas, when it comes to politics and the state, many Christian "fundamentalists" actually compromise rather than uphold fundamentals (in sharp contrast, see John Cobin, Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective, Alertness, rev. ed. 2003).

"Australian politicians have for decades worked tirelessly to cement grave violations of the Ten Commandments into the country's political edifice. In this respect religious politicians and statist priests are, as much as anybody else, agents of moral decline in Australia."

          It is absurd to think that a practising Christian who becomes a conventional politician can remain a practising Christian. The entry of Christians into contemporary politics does not purify politics: it merely sullies the Christians who become politicians. Why? Because just as God says thou shalt not worship other gods, secular ιlites tolerate no opposition to their claim to god-like status. The Ten Commandments is a higher law – higher than the state's convoluted statutes and pettifogging regulations – to which all Christians must submit. Politicians cannot abide this: they and nobody else will determine what is right and wrong and what is acceptable and impermissible. It is thus not theocracy that Australian politicians fear. It is anything that challenges the sovereignty of the Church of Canberra. Politicians often say they want separation of church and state; but what they mean is that the final authority of the state must be undisputed. No other authority – not even the Ten Commandments – can be tolerated because no other authority is compatible with their grasping and monopolistic vision. But in the Christian and especially the Roman Catholic tradition, no government can compel a man to act against the laws of God and still remain a legitimate government (see also "The 10 Commandments Question" by Llewellyn Rockwell).

Up With Religion, Down With Court Priests and Religious Politicians

          Thomas Jefferson wrote to the German classical liberal, Wilhelm von Humboldt, in 1813: "history, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes." So never mind politicians spouting religion and priests playing politics: the central issue facing Australians – particularly devout Australians of whatever faith – is whether government should expropriate and redistribute vast amounts of their compatriots' money. Do such actions obey God's commandment against stealing? From a moral point of view, does it matter whether the government that does the expropriating and redistributing is democratically elected? Does a government that seizes wealth and dispenses largesse among favoured groups and mascots convert its subjects into moral, compassionate and benevolent people? For classical liberals, Christians – and, not incidentally, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – the answer to these questions is clearly "no." Moral principles are immutable, unchangeable and unchallengeable. That is why they are principles. If it is wrong to steal on an individual basis, it is also immoral to steal on a collective basis. It is just as immoral to steal in the two chambers of Parliament House, the corridors of Treasury or the boardroom of the Reserve Bank as it is in the back alley of a CBD, the suburb of a major capital city or the square of a country town.

          The first nine Commandments are theological principles and social laws: thou shalt not make graven images, steal, kill and so on. The Tenth Commandment has a more directly material bent. It states "thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour's." The Ten Commandments enumerate God's basic rules about how Christians must live. They provide principles through which people can live in harmony with others. As P.J. O'Rourke (Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998) interprets it, "if you want a donkey, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don't bitch about what the people across the street have. Go get your own." The most serious points are made flippantly, and so O'Rourke continues: "the Tenth Commandment sends a message to socialists, to egalitarians, to people obsessed with fairness, to [politicians] and to anybody who believes that wealth should be redistributed. And that message is clear and concise: go to Hell."

          In a free market exchange, each party to the exchange trades something he values less in order to receive something he values more. If they deal honestly, such an exchange benefits all parties to the exchange; accordingly, free trade and the free market benefit everybody. Open and honest trade flouts none of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps the most important thing about free market morality is that it does not presuppose that market participants are saints. As Adam Smith famously put it, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest."

          But the market mechanism is fragile and third party decision-making – i.e., decisions that are taken out of the hands of the individuals concerned and hijacked by politicians – weaken or bastardise or wreck the market mechanism. In Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (Harcourt, 1962) Milton and Rose Friedman note that only individuals spend money and that an individual can spend it in one of only four ways. In Scenario 1 he spends his money on himself; in Scenario 2 he spends his money on someone else (or other people); in Scenario 3 he spends somebody else's money on himself; and in Scenario 4 he spends somebody else's money on somebody else (or other people).

          Given the self-interest that underlies human nature, if you spend your own money on yourself then you tend to seek the best value – a subjective thing that only you can determine when it comes to your wants and needs – at the best price. You seek the best value at the best price because you want to stretch your money as far as it will go and thereby meet as many of your subjective desires as possible. If you spend your own money on other people, you still seek the best price (after all, it is your money). The problem is that you may not know – or care – what the other person or people want. This shortcoming is minimised when people spend money on their children or family members: they tend know their relatives and their wants and needs reasonably well (or at any rate better than strangers); and when money is spent on minors, who do not yet know their best interests, parents' vicarious self-interest is usually the best proxy for the children's long-term self-interest.

          If you spend other people's money on yourself, you are intensely concerned about subjective value – i.e., buying what you want – but have much less incentive to obtain a good price. Rather than stretch each dollar as far as it will go, it may well be easier to extract more dollars from others. And if you spend other people's money on other people – i.e., if you are a politician – then you have no incentive at all to care about either value or cost: any damn thing that wins votes will do, and to hell with the cost others will have to bear. Clearly, then, as one proceeds from Scenario 1 to Scenario 4, moral as well as economic constraints weaken, probity evaporates and pathologies proliferate.

          By abandoning the Ten Commandments and economic scenarios consistent with them (i.e., Scenarios 1 and 2), and embracing the welfare-warfare state and scenarios consistent with it (i.e., Scenarios 3 and 4), Australians have not only compromised moral and economic principles: frequently they have abandoned them. Championing the state, leaders of major churches and religious politicians have helped to transform Australian government into a false deity. The problem is hardly unique to our country and this day. "In every country and in every age," Jefferson wrote in 1814, "the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." Today, the state encourages the expectation that in exchange for its subjects' docility and obedience it will provide education, medical goods and services, housing, compensation against unemployment, various family "benefits" and God knows what else. Statist priests and religious politicians, concludes Jacob Hornberger, have made government their golden calf. They worship, adore, support and follow it; and they never condemn it. They routinely and sometimes severely criticise government on the grounds that it robs Peter insufficiently and therefore gives Paul too little (indeed, some priests and politicians seem to do little else). But these days they never condemn the robbery. By placing the "god" of government alongside the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they commit the greatest possible transgression. They mock the first of God's Commandments: "thou shalt have no other Gods before me."