Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK, Hayek, and the pursuit of freedom

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a wonderful document for many reasons, especially for his theological opposition to the dualism so prevalent in his time (and still in ours, to some degree or another). But I was fascinated to read it again today and notice the political ideals King affirms. King passionately defends the idea of natural law:
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

The same affirmation of natural law can be found in F. A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty:
What all the schools of natural law agree upon is the existence of rules which are not of the deliberate making of any [human] lawgiver. They agree that all positive law derives its validity from some rules that have not in this sense been made by men but which can be "found" and that these rules provide both the criterion for the justice of positive law and the ground for men's obedience to it.
As a corollary of King's belief in natural law, he asserts the necessity of equality under the law:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.
Similarly, Hayek again:
If it is often not recognized that general and equal laws provide the most effective protection against infringement of individual liberty, this is due mainly to the habit of tacitly exempting the state and its agents from them and of assuming that the government has the power to grant exemptions to individuals.... It is this fact that all rules apply equally to all, including those who govern, which makes it improbable that any oppressive rules will be adopted.
I might as well continue in this controversial comparison, because I am so very fond of both comparisons and of controversy. Here is King using Nazi Germany to illustrate his point:
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
And here is Hayek doing the same in The Road to Serfdom:
It may well be that Hitler has obtained his unlimited powers in a strictly constitutional manner and that whatever he does is therefore legal in the juridical sense. But who would suggest for that reason that the Rule of Law still prevails in Germany?
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the sense of the purpose of human action in history which both men shared. Here is King talking about the need for principles over and against "moderation":
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
I can't help but see the same concerns embedded in Hayek's argument in The Road to Serfdom:
It is necessary now to state the unpalatable truth that it is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating. The danger is not immediate, it is true.... Yet, though the road be long, it is one on which it becomes more difficult to turn back as one advances.... Only if we recognize the danger in time can we hope to avert it.

It is not to the Germany of Hitler, the Germany of the present war, that England and the United States bear yet any resemblance. But students of the currents of ideas can hardly fail to see that there is more than a superficial similarity between the trend of thought in Germany during and after the last war and the present current of ideas in the democracies.... There is the same contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism, the same spurious "realism" and even cynicism, the same fatalistic acceptance of "inevitable trends."


All parallels between developments in different countries are, of course, deceptive; but I am not basing my arguments mainly on such parallels. Nor am I arguing that these developments are inevitable. If they were, there would be no point in writing this. They can be prevented if people realize in time where their efforts may lead.


If we are to build a better world, we must have the courage to make a new start--even if that means some reculer pour mieux sauter. It is not those who believe in inevitable tendencies who show this courage, not those who preach a "New Order" which is no more than a projection of the tendencies of the last forty years, and who can think of nothing better than to imitate Hitler. ... If in the first attempt to create a world of free men we have failed, we must try again. The guiding principle that a policy of freedom for the individual is the only truly progressive policy remains as true today as it was in the nineteenth century.
Would King and Hayek have agreed on economic policy? I suppose not (but I know very little of King's opinions on economics). They may have disagreed on a great many things. My only point is that their common political values are rather essential: freedom, the rule of law, and the supreme importance of standing for justice against the current trends of history. I think there's great hope in that. Perhaps these are ideals which we all, in our better moments, really stand for. All of us in our weakness tend to forget these ideals in some way or another, and it is usually the fact that we tend to trade these ideals for contradictory ideals that leads to political conflict and polarization. Yet if there is such a thing as "natural law," whatever that may be, maybe it is something to which we can all lift our eyes, whatever political ideology we have previously accepted.

Our future may depend on the answer to that question.

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