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Cultural Rebellion Against God: Risk, Knowledge, and Regulation (Part I)

Though Christians are quick to profess God's omniscience, we are slow to recognize the enormous consequences of this attribute. God has never learned anything.

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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Though Christians are quick to profess God's omniscience, we are slow to recognize the enormous consequences of this attribute. God has never learned anything.1 He has always known everything that has been, is, and ever will be, in the minutest detail. He knows everything, from the number of electrons spinning in the atoms that make up our bodies to the thoughts you will be having five years from this moment.

Since there is nothing unknown to God, and since He is sovereign over all things, God does not take risks. He faces no uncertainties. We can have absolute confidence in Him that He will accomplish all His purposes.

Man, on the other hand, because he is finite in knowledge and power, faces uncertainty. There are ways to reduce risk, and a Christian will take steps to reduce unnecessary risk.2 Yet it is impossible to eliminate all risks, and our culture's attempts to do so are ultimately pretences at the knowledge and power of God. Retreating from one small hazard, without humbly recognizing our limited knowledge, often results in our backing into another, more serious hazard. If we instead recognize that only God is able to act risklessly, then we will understand that the surest way to reduce our overall risk is to obey God's Word.

The Scarcity of Economic Knowledge
Those who fail to recognize the scarcity of knowledge and of physical resources will self-confidently attempt the impossible. Among the offenders are economists, who have typically downplayed the scarcity of their own knowledge and refused to acknowledge an omniscient God.

In the 1930s, the British economist John Maynard Keynes gained international renown by giving an economic justification for what politicians had already begun doing actively intervening in the economy to eliminate recessions. His well-timed work resulted in decades of data gathering, computer modeling, and bureaucrats' machinations. Yet all the activity was futile at best, and dreadfully injurious at worst. Political meddling could never succeed because it presupposed an omniscient state. As Keynes's contemporaries Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek were to point out, the knowledge necessary to run an economy is not measurable or comprehensible by any government. Even if the Keynesian system "worked," Keynesians' attempts to reduce the risk of recessions introduced a far greater hazard a vastly more powerful centralized civil government with practically unlimited authority to intervene for the sake of economic stabilization.

Risky Regulation
This is precisely why it is dangerous to entrust civil government with the responsibility of attacking daily hazards with regulation. Perhaps because the civil magistrate cannot have the information about risks to make wise decisions, perhaps because of the fallen nature of those who would enforce the law, Biblical law bars the civil magistrate from most regulation. Attempts to eliminate safety hazards, health risks, or environmental destruction through regulation only tend to multiply problems.

A classic example is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulation, which specifies the minimum average miles per gallon that each automobile manufacturer must achieve for its fleet. This may reduce Americans' gasoline consumption, but the cost is immense human suffering. One way to meet CAFE requirements is to reduce the weight of automobiles. However, lighter cars tend to be less crashworthy and many people have died in car accidents as an indirect result of the regulation. A 1989 Harvard/Brookings study estimated that CAFE standards have increased motor vehicle fatalities by 14 to 27 percent, which comes out to 2,000 to 4,000 deaths every year. Yet, far from retracting their support of the law, environmentalists have advocated raising the minimum MPG standard again to avoid global warming.3

Environmentalists are perhaps the worst contributors today to overall human risk. Promoting various regulations that purport to protect humanity from various highly speculative or minuscule risks, environmentalist groups frequently expose us to greater hazards. Not least among these increased risks is that of an intrusive civil state. Some environmentalists hold to the "precautionary principle": the idea that all technologies should be rejected that might be harmful, whether or not they are actually proven to be harmful. What about precaution with respect to granting power to the civil magistrate? We know that government acting outside its Biblical limits is harmful, yet men seem willing to accept the risk of tyranny and massive physical suffering if only the civil government will take on the responsibility of eliminating a host of small risks.

Not only do environmental regulations often exchange a small risk for a much larger one, but some environmentalists seem to have abandoned the reduction of risk for humans as a major goal. Moving toward outright nature-worship, they pass up even enormous advances in human well-being to acquire a nugatory environmental benefit. Environmentalists have supported the EPA's 28-year-old ban on the wonder pesticide DDT because of its supposed risk to human health and to wild birds. The results of the law border on genocide. When used in moderation (and not dropped by the ton from WWII bombers, as was sometimes done), the human and environmental risks were slight. Because of worldwide bans on DDT, however, millions of people have suffered serious illnesses and died. In Sri Lanka, mosquitoes had been so effectively controlled by DDT that malaria declined from 2.8 million cases in 1946 to only 110 cases in 1961. In the early 1960s, the Sri Lankan government prohibited DDT, after which the number of malaria cases rose dramatically, to 2.5 million annually by the end of the decade. In developing nations worldwide, about 3 million children under five years of age die each year from malaria.

Environmentalists usually don't restrict their skepticism of Biblically limited government to matters regarding care of the Earth. Politicians like Ralph Nader, for example, combine visions of hazard-free living with clean-Earth rhetoric. Well-meaning "consumer advocates" and other groups can easily become enraptured with the fantasy of a risk-free world as they lobby for stricter product safety laws, workplace safety regulations, or the like.

The result is a riskier world, even in the short run. However, regulators, narrowly focused on reducing risk in their tiny area of relative expertise, cannot or will not see the destruction they cause in other areas. One health hazard may be reduced by a regulation that increases other types of health risks. Or, a lower rate of accidents is accompanied by a greater risk of government tyranny.

The examples are legion. Safety regulators who insisted that children's pajamas be made resistant to flame failed to note that the chemical used to treat the fabric may cause cancer. The regulation requiring child-resistant medicine bottle caps, one study shows, actually has resulted in 3500 additional poisonings of children under age five annually from aspirin-related drugs as consumers have been lulled into a less safety-conscious mode of behavior by the existence of the safety caps.4 Restrictions on gun ownership intended to reduce the risk of accidental death or misuse now create two risks: 1) occasions arise in which the presence of a gun would have prevented death or injury, or 2) the government becomes tyrannical, and a disarmed people are victimized. A law requiring infants to be strapped into safety seats while traveling by air may reduce children's deaths in airplane crashes, but because some parents cannot afford the additional ticket, more families will travel on the highways and incur a far more serious risk.

When it becomes obvious that many risks are associated with poverty, wealth redistribution inevitably becomes part of The Plan for health, safety, and environmental regulators. For many, it is a comfortable fit ideologically. As economist Walter Williams astutely noted, "Now that communism and socialism have lost all respectability, in general those people who have those inclinations have changed their agenda and call themselves environmentalists." And consumer product safety advocates, we might add.

But God's Law Today?
When we pretend omniscience, our concerns should include not only increased earthly hazards, but the certainty of God's judgment on those who reject the source of all knowledge. Increases in earthly risks are merely the down payment on God's judgment on covenant-breakers.

Even Christians who have respect for Scripture sometimes second-guess God by asserting that His instructions for civil government can't be correct, because that would mean that the environment would be destroyed or that people would be hurt by defective products. If God had been aware of the risks of living on the Earth today, it is implied, surely He would have changed His law to allow civil government to intervene. The God of the Bible, however, has never changed, never learned. From before the beginning He knew not only His whole law, but every actual and every possible application of His law for all time. He laid it down perfectly, without need to wonder how it would be interpreted in A.D. 2001. Because God's law is perfectly suited for all time, obeying it is always the best policy.

See Part 2


1. Isaiah 40:13, 14.

2. Ecclesiastes 11:2.

3. See Ben Lieberman, "Deadly Light Cars," The Freeman (April 1999).

4. See W. Kip Viscusi, "The Lulling Effect: The Impact of Child-Resistant Packaging on Aspirin and Analgesic Ingestions," American Economic Review (May, 1984): 324-327.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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