At the heart of the Christmas story is the lowly birth of Christ, surrounded by beasts of the field and honored by Magi bearing gifts.  But consider how differently the Christmas narrative might have unfolded if ancient Judea had been organized as a free-market economy of the sort trumpeted by our libertarian friends.  Imagine Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem, weary and overwrought from the dusty journey.  They have, much to their relief, no difficulty at all finding room in an inn.  Under the enlightened despotism of King Herod, the thriving market economy in Bethlehem has produced an array of commodious lodgings.  Not one but several inns clamor for their business, and local entrepreneurs are renting out spare rooms to turn a quick profit on the influx of census registrants.  One of the inns is offering special rates for expectant mothers and boasts an in-house midwife.  Joseph, needless to say, is pleased: He has been apprehensive all day, lest Mary go into sudden labor.  Soon, the anxious couple is snuggly ensconced for the night.  The midwife, aware of Mary’s delicate condition, stations herself at the ready just inside the door.  Joseph, exhausted, falls into a deep slumber, only to be awakened in the wee hours by the sound of a crying child and the midwife’s gruff laughter.  Meanwhile, Herod has decreed that all infants under the age of two are to be slaughtered.  This “natal-reduction plan” is, of course, the offspring of Herod’s fear of a prophesied rival to the throne.  His advisors, libertarians to a man, strenuously back the new decree, since it does not involve any regulatory meddling in the new economy and, as a collateral effect, will free up more women as potential workers outside the home, creating a labor surplus and lowering the cost of wages for local businessmen.  Thankfully, when Herod’s agents batter down the door of their room, Joseph, Mary, and, of course, the baby Jesus are well on their way to Egypt, having been warned of Herod’s intentions by a mysterious apparition.  And what of the Wise Men?  Well, rumor has it that, as they approached Bethlehem, the star that had guided them for so many nights was obliterated by the lurid torchlight of the casinos that had lately sprung up on the outskirts of town in a special tax-free enterprise zone.  They wandered for hours, fruitlessly, in search of the Holy Family.  Witnesses claimed to have spotted them at one of the shabbier casinos late the next morning, as they stood forlornly before a phalanx of one-armed, mechanical bandits, praying for a windfall.

Like my imaginary Wise Men, we wander each Christmas in a wilderness of bandits.  No, I am not speaking of disappearing crèches, as disheartening as that may be.  ACLU zealotry is, in its way, a tribute to the power of Christmas symbols; but the “war” on that front is largely a diversion.  Rather, I am speaking of what is often called the “commercialization” of Christmas, though that term fails to do justice to what is in fact a massive and ongoing profanation of the very idea of the holy in Western societies.  Christmas, properly understood, is the Christian New Year, the annual celebration of the restoration of human liberty and of our deliverance from the futility of pagan myth, which once held men captive in the sacrificial order of cyclical time.  The humble entrance of the Omnipotent into the closed circle of the secular was the definitive act of creative destruction.  Thus we rejoice with the poet-martyr Robert Southwell: “O dying souls behold your living spring; / O dying souls behold your sun of grace.”  With the birth of the Christ Child, human history is not simply renewed but reoriented.  The Wise Men traveled from the East (the Orient) seeking the promised deliverance; we Christians turn (at least metaphorically) toward the East when we gather in adoration of our “sun of grace,” secure in the knowledge of faith that human history has been transformed, that it has a beginning and an end, that time itself has its terminus in the Eternal.  The Christmas exchange of gifts, as the Second Shepherds’ Play so poignantly reminds us, is an acknowledgement of our abject inability (as fallen souls) to make an adequate return of the gift that God has given of Himself.  But we give, nonetheless, in the hope that grace will make up the deficit.

In the City of God the only mode of exchange is absolute self-giving; there, the economy of desire finds a final and sufficient object, immutable and glorious.  In the City of Man, founded, according to the Genesis account, by Cain, desire finds no settled object.  The vagabond sought to escape the curse that God had placed upon him by building a city and gathering within its walls a race of vagabonds—the uprooted and the alien.  According to Josephus, in the Antiquities of the Jews, Cain provoked “his acquaintance to procure pleasures and spoils by robbery.  He also introduced a change in that way of simplicity wherein men lived before; and was the author of measures and weights.”  Cain, in a manner of speaking, was the progenitor of free trade, which has thrived down to the present under the mark of vagabondage and mimetic desire—that is, envy.  During that curious historical interlude that we call the Middle Ages, trade was given its due recognition as a necessary evil, but kept within strict bounds.  The attitude of the Church and the feudal elites toward trade and the accumulation of wealth was, of course, shaped by the Gospels, but also by the enormous influence of Saint Augustine, who wrote, “let us place ourselves at the stopping places of this life as passing pilgrims, not as permanent possessors.”  In the Augustinian view, the “right” to possess the goods of this world was a right on loan from God.  Aquinas, following Aristotle, was slightly more sanguine.  Possession of property was rooted in an understanding of natural law that presupposed man’s fallen condition.  In his prelapsarian state man had no need of property or trade; all was held in common.  But given the reality of the Fall, private property becomes necessary to ensure harmonious social relations.

If Aquinas managed to reconcile, provisionally at least, divine and human claims of possession, that rapprochement was broken by John Locke.  In the Lockean state of nature, ownership of property is already a condition of our primal innocence, and is rooted in the notion of self-ownership.  In the Anglo-American tradition Locke is often celebrated for having overcome the implications of Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” a more lethal vision of the state of nature, one which demanded drastic measures—the renunciation of self-ownership and the absolute rule of the Leviathan state.  Yet Locke does not really overcome the Hobbesian nightmare; rather, he enacts what Pierre Manent terms an “elegant simplification.”  He asserts, somewhat arbitrarily, that the greatest threat facing human existence in the state of nature is not the aggression of others—driven by envy and the lust for power—but hunger.  Locke simply excludes the metaphysical and social dimensions and focuses our attention upon the bodily needs of the solitary individual whose most pressing concern is self-preservation.  In his radical neediness, Lockean man is fundamentally asocial, and out of his quest for self-preservation arises the justification for individual property rights.  In this “natural” condition, each man has an equal right to the goods of the earth, but exclusive individual possession can be acquired through the application of labor.  The individual transforms what he appropriates by his labor, and confers on it a surplus value that will become the basis of exchange.  Thus the “social” reemerges, but in the form of a contract between consenting individuals whose absolute self-ownership is never truly relinquished.

Locke, then, is the preeminent philosopher of the liberal order.  Henceforth, Cain’s vagabonds make themselves at home in the City of Man.  Leo Strauss was probably overstating the case when he accused Locke of being a crypto-atheist, but he was certainly no Christian, not in any orthodox sense of the term.  To read The Reasonableness of Christianity is to discover that while Locke appears to assent to the Christian Faith, he does so in the manner of a philosopher assenting to self-evident propositions.  There, Christianity is reduced to a moral credo, and Christ to the role of divine lawgiver and revealer.  One searches in vain in Locke’s system for any recognition that the Christ Child Who assumed human flesh came to transfigure the cosmos.  He is supremely indifferent to the Pauline vision of the Mystical Body.  As to the moral law, he comes perilously close to asserting that nothing revealed by Christ is beyond the grasp of unaided natural reason.  Faith, writes Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “must be regulated by reason.”  The cognitio fidei disappears from view: “Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which, if it be regulated . . . cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason.”

Some of our libertarian friends, for whom Locke’s thought is foundational, have made a great effort in recent years to establish a concordat between the Church and the marketplace.  They assure us, following the lead of Ludwig von Mises, that economic reality is governed by laws that are as fundamental as the laws of thermodynamics.  Thomas Woods, who defends the inviolable rule of the market in his The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, informs us that “Economic law cannot possibly be contradicted by moral law.”  According to this view, economic law is analogous to physical law.  It would be nonsensical to argue that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is immoral.  It simply is what it is.  We can’t alter that law without altering reality itself.  Concentrated energy, given the opportunity, will disperse.  If the delinquent teenager punctures my tire, the air will flow out, not in.  Similarly, if Mr. Scrooge pays Bob Cratchit no more than what his labor is worth on the current market, then neither Mr. Scrooge nor the market can be held accountable for this state of affairs, no matter how dire the poverty of the Cratchit household.  After all, Cratchit consented to work at his present wage, didn’t he?  If Mr. Scrooge routinely paid his employees more than their market value, then he would have to make up the loss by charging more for his services, and soon he would be undercut by his competitors and go out of business, and Tiny Tim would die an excruciatingly Dickensian death because poor Cratchit would be out of a job, or so the argument runs.  But in the latter case, say the libertarians, Mr. Scrooge would be culpable because he acted against the law of the market in a misplaced fit of Yuletide virtue.  “Economic law,” writes Woods, “is . . . necessarily amoral, having nothing to do with morality one way or the other.”  But this is patent humbuggery.  Economics has everything to do with morality.  It has to do with human beings, not molecular reactions.  I freely grant that, in the normal course of things, too much interference in the market will produce undesirable consequences.  Woods, however, is indulging in a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand.  Every economic system rests, at least implicitly, upon a presumption of the social good.  Economic neoliberals argue that the free market, left to its own “law,” will always produce a better outcome than a regulated market.  But in what sense “better”?  Clearly, a value has been assumed.  Mises is quite frank about this.  In Liberalism in the Classical Tradition, he writes,

Liberalism is a doctrine directed entirely towards the conduct of men in this world. . . . It has nothing else in view than the advancement of their outward material welfare. . . . It does not promise men happiness, but only the most abundant possible satisfaction of all those desires that can be satisfied by the things of the outer world.

He argues that it is not that economic liberals despise the spiritual aspirations of men; on the contrary, the real materialists are those who fail to see that only free markets effectively create the “preconditions for the development of the inner life.”  He is quite certain that the “relatively prosperous individual of the twentieth century can more readily satisfy his spiritual needs than, say, the individual of the tenth century,” whose anxiety over the most basic requirements of survival would not have allowed much leisure for spiritual development.

Putting aside his rather cavalier assumptions about the average man of the tenth century, we can see that for Mises prosperity has a greater value than poverty.  Why?  Because it produces the “greatest possible satisfaction” of our material desires.  Granted, material desires are not inherently evil, but why is their “greatest possible satisfaction” necessary?  Wouldn’t the mere satisfaction of our most essential needs—food, clothing, shelter—be a sufficient “precondition” for spiritual development?  Indeed, it should be evident that Mises’ argument flies in the face of 20 centuries of Christian tradition.  As Augustine well understood, desire for the goods of this world is insatiable.  Any economic system that panders to—indeed, thrives upon—the endless generation and satisfaction of novel desires is a system that ruthlessly erodes the capacity of the soul for self-reflection.  Take a stroll through your local shopping mall this Christmas season.  Take a close look at the hordes of frantic consumers, each desperately seeking his own private satisfaction, each feeding upon the desires of the other, desiring what the other desires—a perfect frenzy of envy.  This is John Locke’s America.