Saturday, February 8, 2014

The "Wolf of Wall Street" and the Orders of Creation.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street.  Very good, I thought, although not my favorite movie of the year (David O. Russell's American Hustle wins that honor).  It was a bit long, and I think that certain more lurid scenes could probably have been cut.  That being said, it was an interesting study in personal ambition and the power of human beings to engage in almost limitless self-corruption (Incidentally, although some may doubt the truth of some of Belfort's stories, the FBI agent who followed him stated in an interview that to the extent he could verify things, the stories were not exaggerations).  In many respects though, I think Scorsese got fundamentally wrong why Jordan Belfort became corrupt and the nature of his corruption.  The film was never really preachy (something Hollywood often cannot help itself from becoming!), but the subtext was quite obviously an indictment of Capitalism.  There was even a reference to the 1%, that is, a nod in the direction of Occupy Wall Street.

I would of course make a couple of points about this.  First, of course, any economic system is corruptible, because humans are by nature corrupt.  This is obvious and I need not historically elaborate this.  Secondly, there is nevertheless a possibility for Capitalism with virtue (one might say).  Certainly the Puritans had a vibrant Capitalist culture while maintaining a relatively high level of morality (at least in human terms).  The Dutch did as well.  Simon Schama has documented this in his book about the Dutch in the 17th century:   In my own town, Grand Rapids, this culture of virtuous Capitalism has continued, with the old and wealthy Dutch families using their resources to build up the civic life of the city in some very remarkable ways.  One the heirs to the DeVos fortune spoke at my college's graduation back in 2010 and gave a talk on business life and Christian vocation that would have warmed Martin Luther's heart.  So, I think what Belfort's problem and the problem of current economic system is not really Capitalism, but Capitalism without virtue.

So if it's not Captialism, but Capitalism without virtue that's the problem, why did the "Wolf of Wall Street" become the way he did and not like one of the Meijers, Princes or the DeVoses?  I would argue that part of the problem with Scorsese's critique is that it doubles down on the problem that created Belfort in the first place.  Scorsese somehow thinks there needs to be more State-control.  Indeed, over the previous 100 years or so, we have developed the notion that the State is really the center of human life.  This is a mistake made not only by the Left of the political spectrum, but also by the Right.  That being the case, in our current political discourse the State is meant to bear weight that as an Order of Creation that it wasn't established by God to bear.  In other words, the assumption is that human flourishing happens if we get politics right.  In fact, not just human flourishing happens but maybe even the Kingdom of God happens- witness the strange messianic projects that both liberal and conservative Presidents have wanted to take up in recent decades.  It's just the matter of invading one more country and converting it to democracy, or it's a matter of inventing just one more social program- and "Bam!" the kingdom has come!

From the perspective of Luther's Genesis commentary, this is all wrong.  In his commentary on the primal narrative of human life before the Fall, Luther shows that God established first the Family and then the Church as the original and most authentic setting of human existence.  They were created before the Fall into sin and therefore are not necessarily a response to the condition of human sin.   Rather, they are a natural setting for human life on earth.  They only become unworkable on their own when sin comes in.  Therefore after the Flood, in Genesis 9 God promulgates the new law of retribution, thereby implying the establishment of the Order of the State as Paul confirms in Romans 13.  Hence, the State and its coercion are not meant as a means of the fulfillment of human life.  It is, unlike the other Orders, something created in order to counteract human sin and therefore make up for the failures of the first two Orders.  Nevertheless, it cannot replace these other Orders.

This of course brings us back to the Wolf.  Belfort, like many others in our society, did not belong to the Church and did not have much of a family life (the little he has, he systematically destroys).  In terms of his behavior, he is able to do many, many thing which are illegal- but oddly enough the government doesn't care about most of them (when he is finally convicted, the prosecutors have no interest in his use of prostitutes or cocaine!).  Hence, the normal and natural settings for human life are barren for him.  They do not function as either a medium of vocation, or as a means of moral formation.  He has no ultimate hope in his life, and so he feels that Epicurean excess is the only reasonable goal of human existence.  He has no sense of the law of God as taught by the natural law summarized in the Decalogue.  And hence, the only thing left over to direct and restrain him is the State.  Since the State is not omniscient and omnipresent, it cannot actually regulate his moral and spiritual life (even if that was its role) in a manner to make him live a productive life.  All it can do is come in and pick up the pieces.  He is free to get away with whatever he can.

Within such a situation then, the State must either remain impotent in the face of a corrupt culture where the Orders of the Church and Family are non-functional, or it must actually take over those functions and become more and more intrusive, totalizing, and, indeed, tyrannical.  And this latter course more often than not happens.  And so there comes about a kind of symbiotic effect.  The more the Church and the Family deteriorate as Orders, so the Order of the State takes over their functions.  And the State feeds children and supports families because there is no father.  The State teaches "virtue" (after a fashion) in public schools.  And the State becomes a kind of religion and now brings the kingdom.  Nevertheless, it is likewise the case, that as the State takes over these functions and becomes more and more totalizing, it also accelerates the deterioration of the Orders of the Family and the Church as well.


  1. Christians error when they equate government (god-instituted) with "the state" (man-invented). We have government in the world (the individual, families and voluntary organizations are peaceful examples of governments) with out the violent, aggressive interventions of the state.

    Like the Gospel, how government functions best is when it is strictly limited to its proper functions: deter evil in the world (that is to say prevent individuals or groups from initiating aggressive violence, force, fraud or theft against non-consenting individuals or groups - as our Declaration of Independence puts it to protect our individual rights of life, liberty and property) and it functions best when it limits itself to a strictly reactive role.

    The state encourages the breakdown of the family and church when it assumes a "proactive" role and starts to aggressively use violence to acquire resources or to control people to push them into some kind of "vitreous" behavior.

    In effect, the state becomes a vehicle for people's self-chosen works righteousness.

    This how hundreds of millions of people have been sent to their deaths via the state as hyper-self righteous people sought to implement collectivist utopian visions like "national socialism" or "international socialism" (aka communism).

    There are alternative conceptions of the state that stay within the boundaries of God's concept of government:

    "While most people imagine chaos and warlords when the word "anarchy" comes up, the anarcho-capitalist holds his anarchy as the truly ordered system. His anarchy allows for "governments" without the State (an organization that holds a territorial monopoly, prohibiting competitors from offering similar services). That means that while the State won't exist in the anarcho-capitalist society, church governments, private defense organizations, private community localities, and other forms of "governance" can exist, all without the use of exploitation and initiation of force.

    In fact, some of our best forms of law were developed independently of the State, as Murray Rothbard explained in his book For A New Liberty. For example, common law and merchant law were developed not by State courts but by non-governmental, private courts. And the example of ancient Ireland is an example of a working, stateless society that existed before it was conquered by England.

    So, anarcho-capitalism, unlike classical libertarianism, takes the non-aggression principle to the most logical conclusion possible: the State is inherently based on aggression and initiation of force, and it should not exist."