Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

C.S. Lewis on Progress in Economics and Politics

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Every day, we move forward toward a goal. But what if we are actually moving backward?

In my last post, I talked about how C.S. Lewis viewed “progress” in general. While he was certainly not against progress, he warned against pursuing progress for its own sake. Instead, he said, we need to actively reevaluate whether what we are moving toward is beneficial. Will it lead to health…or rottenness?

Lewis also had a great deal to say about “progress” in economics and politics, even though he did not often comment on these topics. When he was invited by the Observer in the late 1950s to write an article on whether progress was even possible, he entitled his contribution “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” The title itself indicates his sobering message.

In the essay, he encouraged progress in “increasing the goodness and happiness of individual lives.” He added, however,

Progress means movement in a desired direction and we do not all desire the same things for our species.

Lewis was particularly concerned about the tendencies in the UK during WWI and WWII to give up liberty for security. He says we have grown “though apparently grudgingly, accustomed to our chains.” He warns that once government encroaches on our freedom, every concession makes it more difficult for us to “retrace our steps.” Perhaps the most striking quotation from this essay is the one on the nature of the happiness that he would like to see. Lewis says:

I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs and asks nothing of Government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?

Note Lewis’s desire for freedom, economic and political. This economic “independence” allows free people to eat their own “mutton and turnips.” This echoes the classic passage in Micah 4:4 where the ideal is that “each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree with no one to make them afraid.” The imagery in this passage is a key image that George Washington used to express his desire for the newly emerging nation. The loss of freedom, according to Lewis, is deplorable.

Lewis is especially concerned about the advent of a worldwide welfare state and sees the enticement to accept it. Giving up freedom for security is a “terrible bargain” that is so tempting that,

We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should.

Despite the temptation, if people do make this bargain, the loss of freedom will lead to “total frustration” and “disastrous results, both moral and psychological.”

The temptation to turn our destiny over to the state often ignores the realization that some will take charge of others. These will simply be men and women, “none perfect; some greedy, cruel, and dishonest.” The more that people in government control our lives, the more we have to ask “why, this time power should not corrupt as it always has done before?”

Lewis believes that we should be progressive if it leads to greater happiness. Sometimes, however, we need to go back in order to go forward, turning the “clock back” or doing an about-turn on the wrong road in order to find the right one. We should not be afraid of being called outdated, old-fashioned, or even a “dinosaur.”

Sometimes we need to go full-speed astern in order to go forward. If we see that we have begun wrongly, we must start all over. In personal life, this means repentance. In public life, it means protecting our freedoms and pushing back against the power of the “welfare state,” lest we be increasingly constrained in our ability to choose what we want to do and be.

Do you agree with Lewis? Leave your comments here.

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