All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1979

Christian Principles and Public Policy

Dr. Caisson is Professor of Social Science at Spring Arbor College in Michigan.

What has been called “the greatest scandal in the scientific domain” in the modern era was the work of the Russian biologist Trofim D. Lysenko. This charlatan rejected the genetics of Gregor Mendel, much to the disgust of competent Russian scholars. However, with Stalin’s support, he dominated the Soviet scene for decades. Many reputable Russian scientists lost their jobs, some their very lives, for even mildly resisting the fashion. On the national level this absurd theory is said to have done considerable damage to Russia’s ailing agriculture.

When Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, the Lysenko era was over at last. Millions of textbooks were scrapped and a hundred thousand biology teachers were retrained. As Eugene Lyons says, “Intelligent Soviet people are frankly ashamed and embarrassed.” But is there any more cause for embarrassment over this needless blunder than for what many so-called social scientists of both East and West have been doing and writing for a long, long time?

Perhaps Bertram D. Wolfe summed up the Lysenko delusion best in this brief statement: “Laws of heredity were passed by the Politburo.” While we would reject with scorn any attempts to legislate the basic principles of genetics, we have left the door wide open to the same type of thinking by social engineers in charge of a multitude of experiments in every aspect of our national life. If we can’t abolish the laws of Nature in the physical sciences and biology, can we do so in the social, political and economic realm? Yet we try to every day.

Perhaps one of the best examples of an attempt to beat what has long been considered a basic principle of politics and economics was the change from silver to base-metal coinage a dozen years ago. As silver change was rapidly disappearing, there were those who reminded us that Gresham’s Law2 was operating once more. This was stoutly denied by prominent people in the national government, but were they right?

Bad Money in History

What is Gresham’s Law and by what authority did he proclaim it? It seems that early in the reign of “Good Queen Bess” England was much plagued with monetary problems. When Elizabeth mentioned her perplexity in the presence of her councilors, Sir Thomas Gresham expressed amazement that Her Majesty was unaware that “Bad money drives out good.” This was back in 1558, but Gresham claimed no credit for discovering what he regarded as a truism. Some forty years earlier Copernicus,3 the Polish astronomer, wrote a little essay on money which shows he was also aware of the principle. Others knew about it at least as far back as the Golden Age of Greece nearly twenty-five hundred years ago. Aristophanes mentioned in his celebrated comedy, Frogs, “bad citizens are preferred to good, just as bad money circulates while good money disappears.”4 Apparently, he assumed that this was common knowledge in his time too.

One might add as a corollary to Gresham’s Law in this age of inflation that a money tends to fall in value to the worth of the material of which it is made: if money is paper, it eventually sinks to the value of last week’s daily papers. Monetary practices of the nations of the world, including our own, are daily making that truth self-evident. But how long will it be before ordinary common sense becomes the basis for national policy and we return to sound money?

Much confusion grows out of the failure to understand how the operation of some principle, like Gresham’s Law, differs from the working of gravity or inertia. When silver change was disappearing a dozen years ago, some people saw no practical difference between the old coins and the new. To them it was all just money. Does this mean that Gresham was wrong? Not really, but it does illustrate the fact that, since economic laws depend on human behavior, they may seem not to operate in a given situation or seem even to work in reverse in the short run.

According to the Law of Supply and Demand, customers are supposed to buy less at high prices and more at low prices. Henry Fords believed this, so he reduced the price of his Model T from $950 in 1909 to $290 in 1926, and sold fifteen million of his cars in the process. This should be adequate proof of the principle. However, he was then forced by declining sales to go to more expensive models, because other factors were becoming more important than the price.

Gravity doesn’t work so haphazardly, but is utterly mechanical in its operation. Yet, there are economic laws at work which must ultimately be reckoned with by communists, socialists, capitalists and even primitive men. And this has always been so, as an English writer so well expressed it more than a half century ago: “Guilds, Governments and Soviets may come and go. But under them all, and, if need be, in spite of them all, the profound adjustments of supply and demand will work themselves out and work themselves out again for so long as the lot of man is darkened by the curse of Adam.”6

God Gave Us Guidelines and Options of Error

The Creator did not simply make us creatures of instinct, although that would have been an easy way of “uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap,” as Dostoyevsky7 pointed out, but He left us the options of error and disobedience. Since man’s behavior is not programmed, God gave us guidelines, if we would just follow them. But we don’t break God’s Law in any sphere; we only shipwreck ourselves on the rocks which we could have avoided, if we had steered our course aright.

Another distinction we need to make is between sin and human error. Let us consider the case of a doctor who was busy spreading the Gospel and infection in an army hospital during the Civil War. Was he a saint or a murderer? Since medical science had not yet discovered the germ theory of disease, there were many fine Christian doctors who were spreading death through the wards even more effectively than they were spreading the Word of Life. They did not realize that they were actually engaged in bacterial warfare against their own soldiers.

One is reminded of a wise saying by the German poet Goethe: “Nothing is more frightful than ignorance in action.” The doctors’ motives may have been pure, but their hands, instruments and bandages were not. Yet the error of their ways would soon be common knowledge, since the first antiseptic operation was performed in Scotland by Joseph Lister in August of 1865, less than six months after the close of the Civil War in America. While Lister’s new technique did not catch on immediately, the spread of this revolutionary scientific innovation was rapid once the word began to get around.

The appalling sanitary situation in the middle of the last century, even in peace time, may be judged from the comment of a British doctor of the time: “A man laid on the operating table in one of our surgical hospitals is exposed to more chances of death than the English soldier on the field of Waterloo.” The great hazard was infection, of course, and had been over the ages, but a simple principle went far in correcting the situation both in surgery and in public health.

The relationship of vast detail to a basic principle may be noted from this comment on Lister’s work: “Joseph Lister’s manifold labors may be read in the volumes of his Collected Papers (1909), but his lifework is summed up in a phrase: he made surgery clean.”8 Would that other human problems could be as easily solved. Here, knowing what to do went far in providing a remedy. Unfortunately, the solution isn’t usually that simple. Men often cling to their errors as they do to their sins.

Slavery and Tariffs

The Civil War also well illustrates man’s unwillingness to change and his persistence in doing wrong, even when it would seem that he ought to know better. In 1850, a little more than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, a popular French political pamphleteer, Frederic Bastiat, wrote an essay called The Law.9 He commented most favorably on the political institutions of the United States, but thought that even here there were two violations of public morality which presented a grave danger to the nation: “The question of slavery and that of tariffs. . . .” Since the English, whom Bastiat knew well, had recently finished a successful campaign to rid themselves of these two evils and since the conflict over slavery and tariffs in America would soon “lead to the dissolution of the Union,” as he foresaw, his observations were both timely and prophetic.

The contrast between the British and the American experience in dealing with these two problems is fascinating and instructive. The English freed the slaves in England in 1772, forbade the transportation of slaves in British ships after 1807, and emancipated the slaves on the plantations in the colonies, particularly the sugar islands of the Caribbean, in 1834.10 In the next decade they began the abolition of their tariffs and had soon accomplished this also. In both cases Christian statesmen led the way and the Christian community provided much of the political support. They also brought this to pass without war or other major upheaval.

We freed our slaves belatedly by a long and tragic “War between the States” and have not yet faced up to the protective tariff problem, which has plagued us throughout our history. Since the resentment of the South against Northern tariffs was as much a cause of the Civil War as Northern objection to slavery, and even nearly started war a generation before it did happen, Bastiat’s concern was not unfounded. Let us try to understand why we were less successful than our British brethren.

Since slavery is the more obvious of the two evils, let us first compare English and American abolition efforts. To begin with, it may be acknowledged that slavery was more deeply embedded in American life and politics than it was in England. Sad to say also, the Southern obsession with slavery increased as we move from 1776 with its Declaration of Independence and 1787 with its Constitutional Convention on into the early decades of the nineteenth century. The usual explanation is the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by a Yankee schoolteacher, Eli Whitney. Arnold Toynbee11 regrets that slavery was not abolished before the Industrial Revolution made the textile industry big business and Whitney’s invention had made cotton “King” in the South.

Concerned Statesmen

It is interesting to note that Jefferson and other Virginia statesmen who were also slaveholders were apologetic for their “peculiar institution” and wished it would go away. The English even thought that the Declaration of Independence’2 would free everyone over here, although we were not quite that consistent. Still the national conscience was troubled, as is evident from the following remarks of a Virginia planter, Colonel George Mason, as the issue was being debated at the Constitutional Convention:

The western people are already calling out for slaves for their new land. Slavery discourages arts and manufacture. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of cause and effect Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.13

In addition to discovering another principle—God “punishes national sins by national calamities,” if the Colonel is right—it is interesting to compare his condemnation of slavery with the Biblical defense of the evil in the years before the Civil War. It is also fascinating to compare English abolitionists with our own: William Wilberforce, for instance, was a patient Christian statesman who knew how to hate the sin without hating the sinner, while John Brown of Harpers Ferry was a fanatic. Therefore, Parliament was able to make emancipation at least palatable to the sugar planters in the Caribbean in 1834: the English government paid the masters twenty million pounds for their slaves.

While there were reasonable Americans, reason failed us; but we did pay for our animosity. It is interesting to note that an official of the U.S. Treasury estimated in 1869 that the cost of the Civil War was “. . . three times as much as the slave property of the country was ever worth.”” This figure, of course, does not count the “blood, sweat and tears.” Now it should be obvious that a more reasoned and Christian approach to American slavery would have been most appropriate, but this hides a deeper issue which will come up in the discussion of their economic problem—a problem which is still with us.

While Northern propagandists tried to picture the Civil War as a holy crusade for freedom, Southerners felt otherwise and with some reason. When the triumph of the new Republican party in November of 1860 made higher tariffs certain, Jefferson Davis insisted that the attempt to limit the extension of slavery was not from humanitarian motives, but to insure that the North would dominate the nation for selfish reasons:

It is that you may have a majority in the Congress of the United States and convert the government into an engine of Northern aggrandizement. It is that your section may grow in power and prosperity upon treasures unjustly taken from the South, like the vampire bloated and gorged with the blood which it has secretly sucked from its victim. . . .15

Davis, of course, was protesting against high import duties on goods bought from England in exchange for Southern cotton. He felt, as Southerners did, that they could never prosper as long as they paid high taxes to promote Northern prosperity. The larger question is whether the government should be busy granting favors to any section, party or interest, or should it simply be concerned with administering justice for all.

In his study, The Evolution of Political Thought, Parkinson’s notes the observation by the ancient Greeks that when their city states became democracies the people would promptly bankrupt their governments by demands for special favors. This collapse then led to a dictator (a tyrant, to use the Greek). Parkinson says the Greeks regarded this shift from democracy through bankrupt socialism to dictatorship as “almost a law of nature.” Perhaps we have another principle here, a “law of nature” which makes democracy impossible except as a short-run expedient. Since other forms of government are not very attractive either, this is a serious matter.


The Law sometimes places this whole apparatus of courts, police, constabularies, and prisons at the service of the plunderer, and puts the plundered person, when he defends himself, in the prisoners’ dock. In a word, there is legal plunder. . . . How is it to be recognized? Very simply. All we have to do is see whether the law takes from some what belongs to them in order to give it to others to whom it does not belong. We must see whether the law performs, for the profit of one citizen and to the detriment of others, an act which that citizen could not perform himself without being guilty of a crime.



In The Law Bastiat said that in an oligarchy the few plunder the many and in a democracy “universal plunder” becomes the rule (to him, “The state is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else”). He says that the “Absence of plunder is the principle of justice, of peace, of order, of stability, of harmony, of good sense.” This would mean a government which confined itself narrowly to the task of administering justice within the nation and defending the frontiers, as Adam Smith18 urged in The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.

The Victorian system was, of course, the application of the ideas of Adam Smith to the economic and political life of Great Britain. Victorians believed that a few basic principles should serve as guidelines in the decisions for the running of the nation and of the world, and that these “Laws of Nature” were built into the constitution of the universe by the Creator Himself. The Judge of all the earth becomes the court of last resort. Were they right, or should the government dominate every aspect of life, as it is doing more and more?

American conservatives have long been frustrated because the general public does not “buy” their arguments for limited government, a revival of the “work ethic,” and other sound policies. The appeal is usually made in the name of efficiency, greater productivity, and maximizing profits. Unfortunately, that approach often misses the mark—life doesn’t seem to work out that way. I knew a few poor farm laborers during the Great Depression who stayed off W.P.A. because they had tender consciences. They could have gotten twice as much money for doing half as much work, but they would have had to lie to do it (they would have had to swear on their applications for government jobs that they couldn’t find work, when they knew very well that farmers couldn’t get help).

While it is true that the nation would be better off over the long run if people in general did what was right, the connection between virtue and reward for the individual may be so remote, and even uncertain, that it is almost silly to suggest it. Try in this age to convince a bureaucrat, one who is doing less than nothing, that he should resign to reduce the national budget. True, perhaps, but who listens? The worthless government employee is just trying to minimize his efforts and maximize his income. That sounds like good economics, doesn’t it? It would be better to appeal to his conscience—if he has one.

Men of Conscience

We forget that the men who made that remarkable era of freedom in England back in the last century were men of conscience. Is sound social, political and economic theory simple Christian ethics? Reformers in England once believed this and their considerable success suggests that their ideas and actions might well serve as examples for us in this time of national and global crisis. It should be noted also that they secured someone else’s freedom before they got around to care for their own self-interest: the abolition of slavery in British territory was accomplished before the free trade movement was started. The thinking was the same in both cases, as they themselves insisted.

As the slavery issue was being debated in Parliament in the early years of the last century, practical politicians who were making money from slavery objected that the abolitionists were arguing the case on “abstract principles of right,” and were ignoring the heavy losses to business that would come with the triumph of their cause. Wilberforce19 replied that a “Christian country should be glad to give up profits which are made out of human shame and misery.” He assured them that the laws of the nation should be founded “on the great and immutable principles of truth, justice and humanity.” This same viewpoint dominated the campaign for free trade a little later, during the early years of Victoria’s reign, when statesmen such as Richard Cobden and John Bright consulted the Bible as they did business statistics.

In the early decades of the last century it was a common saying in England that “the school master now walks abroad in English politics,”20 since the appeal to truth requires thought and study, while the pragmatist makes up his rules as he goes along. According to Jacques Barzun,2‘ this era “has rightly been called the Golden Age of Intellect.” Barzun notes correctly that the relationship today between a labor leader and his Ph.D. consultant in economics is not between their intellects; the Ph.D. is a flunky helping his pragmatic boss do what he would do anyway without his assistance. He is in much the same position as a soothsayer prostrated before the throne of an Oriental despot: he says what he is expected to say. When principles are ignored and truth is forgotten, learning loses its reason for being; the “truth” simply becomes the lie that Big Brother finds most convenient at the moment. Freedom disappears, for liberty and truth are inseparable. “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).



‘Eugene Lyons, Workers’ Paradise Lost (New York: Twin Circle Publishers, 1967), pp. 321-325.

°William F. Rickenbacker, Wooden Nickels (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1966), pp. 57-96.

°Angus Armitage, The World of Copernicus (New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1947), pp. 85-87.

°Elgin Groseclose, Money and Man (New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., second edition, 1967), p. 26.

°Roger Burlingame, Henry Ford (New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1954), p. 59 and pp. 86-87.

°Hubert D. Henderson, Supply and Demand (London: Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1921), p. 17.

7Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: New American Library, translation by Manuel Komroff, 1957), p. 237.

°Victor Robinson, M.D., The Story of Medicine (New York: The New Home Library, 1943), p. 423.

°Frederic Bastiat, Selected Essays on Political Economy (Princeton, NJ.: D. Van Nostrand Co., translation by Seymour Cain, 1964), pp. 59-60.

‘°J. C. Furnas, The Road to Harpers Ferry (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1959), pp. 245-285.

“Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History (London: Oxford U. Press, 1939), Vol. 4, pp. 137-141.

“Dwight Lowell Dumond, Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1961), p. 25. “Garet Garrett, The American Story (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1955), p. 87.

“H. U. Faulkner, American Economic History (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, seventh edition, 1954), p. 508.

p. 308.

1°C. Northcote Parkinson, The Evolution of Political Thought (New York: The Viking Press, 1958), p. 241.

“Bastiat, op. cit., pp. 62-64.

“Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: The Modern Library), p. 651.

18W. E. F. Ward, The Royal Navy and the Slavers (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1969), p. 19.

“Asa Briggs, Victorian People (New York: Harper and Row, 1955), p. 209.

21Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), pp. 10-11.