What did C.S. Lewis have in common with Mises and Hayek?
Growing up in a religious home and later dabbling in Christian apologetics, I developed affinity for C.S. Lewis, author of several novels and books — including the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity.
Whether call yourself a Christian or an atheist, Lewis was indeed a great writer who didn’t simply ground his beliefs in faith. Unlike many who simply follow their beliefs based on Sunday school teachings, Lewis developed the modern view of Christian apologetics, laying the ground for future thinkers, including William Lane Craig and others.
One of my favorite books by Lewis is Mere Christianity. In this book, Lewis presents a case for Christianity and also breaks down the Christian worldview on society and morality. In the book, Lewis notes that a pure Christian society would closely resemble socialism, a suggestion that isn’t too far off-base if one reads the Book of Acts, which explains that early Christians lived together and “had everything in common.” This was likely due to the persecution endured by early believers at the hands of Jews and Roman rulers. They kept together in what were very unaccepting times for followers of Jesus Christ.
Writing at The Freeman, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), Harold B. Jones, Jr. explains that Lewis was really an advocate of the free market because of his belief in reason, which was similar to two great economists of the day — Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek:
C. S. Lewis had much in common with the great free-market thinkers of his time. He is discovered on careful examination to have been writing about many of the same issues as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek and on these issues to have been in perfect agreement with them. The dates are worth considering. Bureaucracy, one of Mises’s critiques of governmental economic intervention, came out in 1944. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom came out the same year. Lewis had released The Abolition of Man only a year before, and in the year that followed his That Hideous Strength made its debut. All these books were written to defend the idea of the individual human being as the locus of rational choice and moral responsibility. Mises and Hayek wrote as economists and Lewis as a lay theologian, but all three wrote to challenge the assault on human nature in the name of a false ideal.
Lewis seems never to have thought specifically about the principles of the free market. He thought a great deal, though, about the importance of accurate premises and careful reasoning, and he could see that many religious leaders had no interest in either. In denigrating the powers of reason, he warned them, you are opening the way for tyranny.
The work that first brought Lewis to the attention of a wide public was The Screwtape Letters, which was published in 1942. This book purports to document the correspondence by means of which a senior devil advises his subordinate Wormwood on how to secure the damnation of the human being for whom Wormwood has been given responsibility. Prominent among the recommended techniques is that of confusing the man’s thoughts by means of what he reads. Keep him away from anything carefully logical, Screwtape insists, and as far as possible from subjects dependent on solid reasoning or demonstrable facts. “If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics or sociology.”
Lewis was not alone in his unhappiness with the careless thinking behind much of what passed for economics. Hayek said the field had become a factory of “official myths,” and Mises begged for “common sense and logical clarity.” All three men could see that the most familiar themes on the subject of economics were anything but a display of careful thinking. The London School’s Harold Laski is a case in point. He strongly advocated eugenics, the public ownership of productive capital, and centralized planning. Another example is Francis Townsend, who offered a much-applauded plan for curing economic ills by giving people over the age of 60 an income of $200 a month, provided only that they spent every nickel and engaged in no productive activity.
For men like Archbishop Temple, such ideas seemed to offer a ready answer for the suffering they saw in the world around them. Lewis was in complete sympathy with their desire to alleviate human misery, but he understood that the execution of benevolent intentions requires the expenditure of resources. Since these are in any given moment severely limited, choices must be made. In the most famous of his wartime lectures, he said, “You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this or that good to this or that man. And if you do this good, you can’t at the same time do that.”
He gave the example of a man in a boat, who sees two others drowning. The man wants to help both but must start with one, and while he is saving that one, the other may go down for the last time. If he can save the first, he will deeply regret but need not apologize for the second’s death. He did what was within his power, which was the only power that could be brought to bear on this particular situation. There were at that moment doubtless other drowning men to whom he could have given no assistance even if he had known of them, but they were not his responsibility. He could be expected to do only as much as his own knowledge and resources permitted.
As Hayek wrote at almost exactly the same moment that Lewis was delivering his lecture, the concrete human being can be aware of and deal with but “an infinitesimal fraction of the needs of all men.” Lewis said that the only effective benevolence is that of challenging “each immediate evil as well as we can… . [T]he dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.”
The article is a hefty read, but you can check out the rest of it here. And as an aside, I may have issues with the current state of Christianity, going as far as calling in question what I was taught growing up, I’m still very much a fan of C.S. Lewis. If you haven’t read his works, you should.