All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 1978

Guilt, Responsibility and Western Prosperity

Mr. Dykes is a businessman, free-lance writer and enthusiastic advocate of the free market.

One of the great differences between ancient paganism and early Christianity was in their varying concepts of responsibility. Responsibility has generally been defined as “the human sense of answerableness for all acts of thought and conduct.”’ The pagan, however, located responsibility primarily in his environment—e.g., fate, the stars, the gods, and the like, whereas Christian faith insisted on individual moral responsibility. Orthodox Christianity was not then nor is it now “concerned with the pointless questions about heredity, environment, the stars, or any other like search for a cause.” Rather the Christians perceived that “the pagan search for causes is a denial of the person and also of responsibility.”²

Ours is a time when the pagan and Christian concepts of responsibility are often curiously mixed in the same minds, resulting in a strange new doctrine wherein some men are considered to be the helpless victims of environmental determinism, while others are declared to have a free will, albeit an evil one.

In his analysis of egalitarianism, P. T. Bauer provides an example of this kind of thinking: “The poor are often envisaged as a distinct class at the mercy of the environment, with no will of their own, while at the same time they are denied the primary human characteristic of responsibility. The rich are regarded as having a will of their own, but as being villainous. Poverty is seen as a condition caused by external forces, while prosperity, is viewed as the result of conduct, although reprehensible conduct. The poor are considered passive but virtuous, the rich as active but wicked.”3

Thus in contemporary egalitarian demonology, the “rich” and their machinations have become the “stars,” “fate,” or other “causes” which afflict the “poor.”

Search for Scapegoats

This abiding human passion to transfer responsibility for one’s own sin and failure to someone or something else can be illustrated by innumerable examples. Some years ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote of his encounter with anti-Christian books in days prior to his conversion. He noted that Christianity “was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. . . .” He continues, “I was much moved by the eloquent attack on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom. . . . They did prove to me in Chapter I. (to my complete satisfaction) that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II., they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic.”

He was impressed by the argument that Christianity was weak, timid and cowardly with regard to fighting, then turned the page and “found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars” and “had deluged the world with blood. . . . The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes.”4

A few years later Ludwig von Mises was moved to say that “Nothing is more unpopular today than the free market economy, i.e., capitalism. Everything that is considered unsatisfactory in present day conditions is charged to capitalism. The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion and the sins of our contemporaries, and the Protestant churches and sects are no less vigorous in their indictment of capitalist greed. Friends of peace consider our wars as an offshoot of capitalist imperialism. But the adamant nationalist warmongers of Germany and Italy indicted capitalism for its `bourgeois’ pacifism. … Sermonizers accuse capitalism of disrupting the family and fostering licentiousness. But the ‘progressives’ blame capitalism for the preservation of allegedly outdated rules of sexual restraint.”5

Thus Christianity and capitalism have often been the “scapegoats” on which the sins and shortcomings of many have been laid. More recently, the wealth of Western nations—a product of Christian capitalism—has been attributed to “neocolonialism,” the indictment put forward by socialists of all stripes that the nations of the Western world (the “haves”) derive a large and essential part of their affluence from exploitative investments in the underdeveloped nations (the “have-nots”).

President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania put it this way: “I am saying it is not right that the vast majority of the world’s people should be forced into the position of beggars. . . . In one world, as in one state, when I am rich because you are poor, and I am poor because you are rich, the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor is a matter of right; it is not an appropriate matter for charity. . .”6 Here we have not only the accusation that the rich nations are responsible for the poverty of the poor nations, but also the claim that the rich have a moral responsibility to redistribute their ill-gotten gain to the masses of undifferentiated poor.

Accusations of the West

Like the critics of Christianity and capitalism, the Third-World apologists really get carried away. According to Dr. Lewis H. Gann, “the hated American plotters, like the Elders of Zion in the Nazi polemics of old, can do no right. If they invest overseas, they exploit foreigners. If they do not invest abroad, they are guilty of boycotting other countries. . . . If capitalists earn profits, they impoverish the masses. If they do not earn profits, they prove that capitalism must be decadent. If American entrepreneurs try to preserve indigenous customs in the Third World, they promote ‘dysfunctional’ forms of tribalism. If they disrupt indigenous customs, they are guilty of cultural genocide. The list can be extended indefinitely.”7 Dr. Gann concludes: “The real or assumed machinations of foreign capitalists supply a universal excuse for the political and economic failures of the Third World.”8

Accusations that the West in general, and capitalism in particular, has caused the poverty, hunger and backwardness of the Third World, are totally without foundation. There are able studies which set forth the truth,9 but the urge to masochism remains strong, especially among Western intellectuals and churchmen.

P. T. Bauer and B. S. Yamey cite a leaflet put out by a student organization in Cambridge, England: “Almost all of us in this country belong to the small minority of those who made it to prosperity. But we climbed on the shoulders of the rest—the ones we left behind—abandoned to disease, poverty, and unemployment. We took the rubber from Malaya, the tea from India, raw materials from all over the world, and gave almost nothing in return.” The truth, according to Bauer and Yamey, is that “Western governments and enterprise brought rubber to Malaya and tea to India which were not indigenous to these countries.”°

Why the Difference?

Given the obvious economic supremacy of the West vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and given the equally valid, if not so obvious, fact that this supremacy has not been achieved at the expense of the rest of the world, why is the West—and especially America—prosperous, while the remaining two-thirds of mankind are part of the world’s hungry billions? We cannot give a detailed explanation here, but can indicate several conditions that were essential in preparing the way for the affluence we now enjoy.

First, one need not be a believer to notice that the poor nations are those where Christianity has had little influence or has not taken strong root. On the other hand, the rich nations, those where agricultural surpluses are a chronic problem, are those where the dominant formative values have been Christian—and in particular, Protestant Christian. Cattle and monkeys thrive in India because they are considered sacred; no Hindu would kill a cow because he is afraid of offending his god, nor are cattle and monkeys usually driven away from crops, even when they are consuming food desperately needed by the starving. Here we see false religion leading directly to bad farming.

Second, the Reformation gave to Europe a new understanding of using and enjoying the material world. The older asceticism was essentially rejected and a new work-ethic emerged which provided the dynamic for the economic explosion that was to follow over the next four centuries. Third, the Puritans assisted mightily in the development of modern science and encouraged men to master their material environment.” (It is not well known, but of 68 men on the original list of the Royal Society for whom information on their religious orientation is available, 42 were Puritans.)¹² They were instrumental in bringing the Scientific Revolution, which provided the theoretical and technical foundation for the Industrial Revolution.13 We should, moreover, not forget the influence of Puritanism on education. Universal education is an inheritance directly traceable back to the Reformers, and their heirs, the Puritans.”

And finally, as Irving Kristol has reminded us, “the Founding Fathers intended this nation to be capitalist and regarded it as the only set of economic arrangements consistent with the liberal democracy they had established.”15

The above represents, of course, only some of the more important historical antecedents making for Western prosperity. In relating this back to present conditions in the Third World, are we not justified in believing that if they are ever to appreciably raise their material standard of living, they must first raise their spiritual, moral, and educational standards. Only by achieving a society committed to individual responsibility and moral accountability for both persons and institutions will they approach the material well-being of the West.

Is it any surprise that the developed nations not only have the most productive economies but that their citizens enjoy the greatest degree of freedom? As Friedrich von Hayek has stated: “What strikes one above all is the general achievement . . . of practically all developing countries which have embarked on the road of consistent market economy to pull themselves out of the mire of poverty. What also strikes one is the hopelessness of those who have tried the road of socialist methods.’”



‘David Fyffe, “Responsibility,” in James Hastings, editor: Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 10, p. 739. Scribners, 1908-1922.

2R. J. Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity, p. 89, Fairfax, Va.: Thoburn Press, 1977.³lrving Kristol & Peter T. Bauer, Two Essays on Income Distribution and the Open Society, pp. 17, 18. Los Angeles: International Institute for Economic Research, 1977.

4G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 84, 85, 87. Garden City: Image Books, 1959.

5Ludwig von Mises, Planned Chaos, p. 17, Irvington, N.Y.: FEE, reprinted 1972.

6Julius Nyerere, African Affairs, pp. 242-50. April 1976, quoted in P. T. Bauer & B. S. Yamey, Commentary, “Against the New Economic Order,” p. 27. April 1976.

‘Lewis H. Gann, Neo-Colonialism, Imperialism, and the ‘New Class’, p. 10. Menlo Park, Ca.: Institute for Humane Studies, Inc., 1975.

8lbid., pp. 4, 5.

9See P. T. Bauer, Dissent on Development, Cambridge: Harvard. University Press, 1972. “P. T. Bauer & B. S. Yamey, Commentary, “Against the New Economic Order,” p. 27, April 1976.

“See R. Hooykaas, Religion & the Rise of Modern Science, pp. 135-149, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961. Also Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, pp. 92-4, 179-81, New York: W. W. Norton, 1961.

²R. K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, p. 584 ff., New York: The Free Press, 1967.

“Kurt Mendelssohn, The Secret of Western Domination, New York: Praeger, 1976.

“See Hans J. Hillerbrand, The World of the Reformation, p. 212 f., New York: Scribners, 1973. Also Harold J. Grimm, The Reformation Era: 1500-1650, p. 592 f., New York: Macmillan, 1954.

“Irving Kristol, The Public Interest, “On Corporate Capitalism in America,” number 41, Fall 1975, p. 124.

“Quoted on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, 6 January 1976.

  • Mr. Dykes is a businessman, free-lance writer and enthusiastic advocate of the free market.