North: “On Completing a 34-Year Vow”

From Gary North, On Completing a 34-Year Vow

—<Quote begins>—

It is time to tell the story of how I achieved the first three phases of my life’s calling. I have not told this story to anybody in full detail, even my wife.

It began in 1960. The second phase began in 1973. The third phase began in 1977. It ended today.

In the spring of 1960, I was a second-semester freshman at the University of California, Riverside. I had transferred from Pomona College. At Pomona, I had made the decision to major in political science. In one of those strange occurrences, my faculty advisor ran for governor of California in 1974, and lost to Jerry Brown by about 1% of the vote. Here we are, 38 years later, and Jerry Brown is again the governor of California. The more things change, the more they stay the same. (Not quite: the debt doesn’t. It grows.) I am in California today.

In 1960, I had been reading The Freeman for a little over two years. I was convinced that the free market position that was presented in The Freeman is the correct position. It is the position articulated by Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, and other advocates of Austrian School economics.

I was also convinced that the Bible has things to say about economic theory and practice. I was not sure at that point exactly what the Bible has to say, but I had read enough of it to recognize that it is committed to a private property social order. So is the Austrian School economics. I decided that I would spend time studying the connections between Austrian School economics theory and biblical teachings on economics. Little did I suspect how much time.

I was aware of a tabloid newspaper that was published every two weeks, Christian Economics. I occasionally read that tabloid. It would run articles by many of the same authors who were published in The Freeman. Yet I also recognized that those articles rarely if ever made any correlation between Christianity and economics. There was a kind of intellectual schizophrenia operating visibly in that tabloid. It was not that the materials published in the tabloid were incorrect; it was that they were not connected in any systematic way with the title of the tabloid.

I did not know in the spring of 1960 that, six decades later, I would still be working on that project. I am about to embark on what will be the final phase of the project. In 1960, I was not clear about where this project would lead, nor did I have any suspicion about how long it would take. I don’t know if I would have decided to pursue it in 1960 had I known. But, in all likelihood, I would have. I was curious about the answer, and I remain curious about it.

In June of 1960, I ordered two books from the Foundation for Economic Education, the organization which published The Freeman. One book was by Mises, Human Action (1949). The other book was by Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1960). I began reading both books that summer. I did not finish them until the summer of 1963. I read other books by both authors in the interim.

As I increased my knowledge of Austrian School economics, and as I increased my knowledge of the Bible, I became more convinced that there are correlations between them. I had hoped to study with Hayek at the University of Chicago after I graduated from college in 1963. That plan was sidetracked in 1962, when Hayek left the University of Chicago and went back to Germany to teach. So, I went to Westminster theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the fall of 1963. One of the term papers I wrote in a philosophy class was on Murray Rothbard’s epistemology. After one year in the program, I decided that I did not intend to go into the ministry, and so I returned to California.

I enrolled for one semester at UCLA, but I decided that I did not intend to spend the remainder of my career in a schizophrenic program that was half Chicago School and half Keynesian. So, I enrolled as a graduate student to the University of California, Riverside, and began my graduate studies in history. The economics program was totally Keynesian. It later moved to accommodate Marxists. I took graduate-level courses in sociology and economic history, but my degree is in history. My field of study was colonial America. I was still working on the same project that I had begun in 1960, namely, to see what the Bible has to say about economics. I spent two years in detailed research studying what the Puritans had to say about economics. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the concept of property in Puritan New England, 1630-1720.

Beginning in 1967, I wrote for The Freeman. I continued to read the classics of Austrian School economics.

I received my doctorate in the summer of 1972. At that time, I was a senior staff member of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. I was in charge of their seminar program. I also continued to write and lecture for the Foundation.

A Shift in My Career

In the spring of 1973, I made a life-changing decision. I left the Foundation and went to work selling gold and silver coins for the organization that is now known as Monex. That was one of the best decisions of my life. While I had a safe position at the Foundation, I was hampered by the restrictions that the president of the organization, Leonard Read, placed on all senior staff. He would not let us keep any money for any lectures that we gave on our own time. I had to give all the money back to the Foundation. This also applied to anything I wrote. Had he decided to split on a 50-50 basis with the Foundation I might still be there. Fortunately, he did not. I was able to break free of the organization, and that opened up both my job and my calling.

Also in the spring of 1973, my book was published: An Introduction to Christian Economics. This was five years after the publication of my first book, Marx’s Religion of Revolution. I was still committed to studying the relationship between free market economics and the Bible.

At that time, my wife suggested to me that I begin writing a verse-by-verse economic commentary on the Bible. This had never been attempted. The first essay was published in May of 1973 in R.J. Rushdoony’s monthly newsletter, the Chalcedon Report. I continued to write that monthly column until 1981.

In 1975, I founded the Institute for Christian Economics, a tax-exempt educational organization. I began publishing newsletters on a regular basis through the ICE. That organization was entirely an extension of my calling. I did not take a salary from it, nor did I ever take any book royalties from the books I wrote that it published. I invested at least 20 hours a week, and probably closer to 30 hours a week, from 1976 until I shut down the organization in December of 2001. I raised the funds, I supervised the publication of dozens of books, and I wrote a monthly newsletter. I also wrote a cover letter.

The Vow

I come now to the most important decision that I made regarding this project. In June of 1976, I went on the staff of the newly elected congressman from Texas, Ron Paul. He had been elected at a special midterm election in the spring of 1976. He ran for re-election that fall, but he was defeated by 268 votes out of approximately 180,000. That meant that I would go off Congress’s payroll in January of 1977.

I still had a small income from my financial newsletter, Remnant Review. I had started it in May of 1974. But I wanted a full-time job, in order to get a regular stream of income, so that I could use the money that I made from Remnant Review to pay for advertising to build the mailing list. So, I went looking for a job. I got an offer from Howard Ruff, the publisher of the Ruff Times newsletter. He had also started his letter in 1974. I held that job until I quit in late 1979. By that time, I had over 22,000 subscribers to Remnant Review.

When Ruff hired me in the spring of 1977, I was living in the Washington, DC area. I wanted to move out of that region. I wanted to stay in the Southeast. So, I began looking in Virginia and North Carolina. My wife and I did not find the right property. I became concerned about the fact that we could not find the right town. I wanted to be close to a major university library. So, we looked in Charlottesville, which is where the University of Virginia is. We also looked in Durham, North Carolina, the home of Duke University.

I wanted to settle down, so I did what I had not done before, and which I have not done since, I made a vow to God. I said that if God would find me the right house, I would work for 10 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, until I turned 70 years old.

I turned 70 today.

I realized that the amount of work involved in fulfilling that vow would be way out of proportion to the value of any house. But I wanted to get this thing settled, and I also wanted motivation to continue to work at a steady pace on the project that my wife had recommended, namely, to write a comprehensive economic commentary on the Bible.

As it has turned out, it took me the entire period to complete 98% of the task. I am in the final stages of proofreading the final typesetting of the series. I should finish revising everything by the end of March. The set will probably be 31 volumes. In addition, I wrote four volumes of appendixes as separate books. What we have here is another piece of evidence of what is known as Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time allotted for its completion.”

All of this is preliminary to the final phase of the project. The final phase will be writing and publishing a multi-volume book on Christian economics. The first volume will cover the foundations of Christian economics: methodology, conceptual framework, content. This will probably be at least as large as Mises’ Human Action. Then I will have to write the equivalent of a one-semester textbook on applying Christian economics. It will be aimed at college students. This will be at least 500 pages long. Finally, I will write a detailed book on epistemological problems of economics, one that covers the same topics that Mises’ book covered over six decades ago.

But there will be more to it than books, of course. There must also be videos. I am not certain how I’m going to pull this one off. I may do a video for each of the chapters in the commentary: 700+. Actually, I will have to do two videos. The first video will be a 3-minute teaser video to get people to click through and view the full video, which will probably be anywhere from 15 minutes to 25 minutes long. Then I will have to do videos of the textbook, section by section, in video format. Same strategy: short and long. Anyone who does not do videos is not serious about communicating his ideas to this generation and presumably all future generations. I am grateful that YouTube is available, but its presence will add a minimum of three additional years to the project. It may add more than this.

I also plan to do a daily video on the basics of economics. I will aim it at people who are taking a lunch break. I will call this video series “economics for lunch.”

I knew from the beginning that the commentary would give me a major advantage over all defenders of the left-wing Social Gospel and the Marxist Liberation Theology (which died in 1992, after the demise of the USSR). Any critic who says that my major book on Christian economics is not biblical will face a problem. I will have this response: “Where is your volume of exegesis to prove your position?” He will have none. I will have 31. That is the old favorite, “Put up or shut up.” Out of graciousness, I will not add, “Bozo.”

If I had not taken that vow, I do not think that I would have persisted for 500 hours a year from 1977 until today. That kind of commitment is not normal. It is surely not normal when discussing a project for which the creator is convinced that there will be only a tiny market in his lifetime. Furthermore, I was not sure exactly what I would find. This could have turned into a wild goose chase. I don’t think it will, but there are still loose ends that I must tie together if I can.

Refuting a Poem

I did not know in 1960, nor did I know in 1973, that my life’s work with respect to my calling would boil down to this: the refutation of an obscure poem. That poem is known as “The Fable of the Bees,” but was originally published as “The Grumbling Hive.” It was a parable about social order. It was written by a dentist from the Netherlands who had immigrated to England. His name was Bernard Mandeville.

The poem was an early presentation of Keynesianism. It was what we call demand-side economics. But Keynesianism was not the heart of the poem. The heart of the poem was its thesis that, whenever individuals pursue their self-interest, the results are positive for society. In other words, the pursuit of individual self-interest is not a negative thing. On the contrary, it is a positive thing. It leads to increased productivity, increased wealth, and increased social peace.

Hayek wrote about this poem on several occasions. He made the point that it became a scandal throughout Europe. It was so completely opposed to prevailing concepts of Christian ethics and moral philosophy that it became the target of many attacks. Mandeville responded in 1714 with a two-volume defense of the poem. The two-volume defense was called The Fable of the Bees.

Francis Hutcheson, who taught moral philosophy at Glasgow in the mid-18th century, hated this poem and the book with great intensity. He never lost an opportunity to criticize it. His student, Adam Smith, carried on his teacher’s tradition. But a strange thing happened. Smith adopted Mandeville’s methodology in order to refute Mandeville. Smith’s magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (1776), is in fact a defense of Mandeville’s thesis. What is different about Smith’s presentation is it focused on productivity more than consumption. Smith was a supply-side economist. He was not a Keynesian. But he used Mandeville’s methodology to refute his Keynesianism. He, too, accepted the position that the pursuit of self-interest produces social benefits.

Smith’s methodology soon became dominant in the writings of economists. Socialists and interventionists opposed it, because they did not believe that a productive social order comes out of the pursuit of individual self-interest. They believed that there has to be some form of central planning. They also believed that private property is a blight on humanity. But Smith’s followers continued to use Mandeville’s methodology, namely, to insist that the pursuit of individual self-interest, whether perceived as a vice or not, does lead to great public virtues, or what economists regarded as even better, economic growth.

With the triumph of Adam Smith’s methodology, Christian social theory went in two directions: free market and socialistic. In each case, the proponents rested their case on a humanist methodology, either methodological individualism (Scots) or methodological holism (socialism).

There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that the pursuit of individual self-interest is the basis of long-term economic growth. Much in the Bible favors charity. There is little in the Bible that speaks of capital formation. There is no doubt that Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 promote the idea of economic growth. These two documents are the earliest documents we can find in the history of man that promote long-term economic growth. But they do not base their presentation on Smith’s notion of the pursuit of self-interest as the basis of economic growth.

So, I still have my work ahead of me. There is no doubt that Mandeville’s discovery was a major one. In my view, it was the most important single discovery in the history of humanistic social theory. Adam Smith extended Mandeville’s discovery, although modifying it by moving it from demand-side economics to supply-side economics. Nevertheless, Mandeville’s discovery is at the heart of modern economic theory.

With the demise of socialist economies, we have seen the demise of socialist economic theory. Today, demand-side economics is dominant, usually in the form of Keynesianism. Supply-side economics adheres to the same methodology as Keynesian economics. The difference is this: the Keynesians believe that there needs to be some degree of central planning in order to bring coherence and full employment to the economy. They do not believe that the pursuit of individual self-interest is sufficient to produce long-term economic growth and avoid recessions and depressions. But both sides defend the concept of individual self-interest.

I mention all this because I want you to understand that I came to this conclusion only in the last four or five years. Although I was aware of Mandeville’s poem, and I was aware of Adam Smith’s methodology, which rested on the pursuit of self-interest and goals, it was not clear to me when I began the extent to which the poem broke with traditional Christian morality and social theory.

There’s no question that these matters usually take a lot of thought over a long period of time. There may be some people who come to their conclusions more rapidly than I did. For all of my work in studying Austrian School economics, Chicago School economics, Keynesian economics, and supply-side economics, it was not until I sat down and read Mandeville’s poem and his book that I recognized the heart of the matter. I needed 500 hours a year from 1977 until about 2005. It should not have taken me this long, but it did.

Discovering Your Calling

With this as background, let me make some recommendations. First, the earlier you discover your calling, the more likely you will be able to make a significant contribution. When you find the most important thing that you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace, you should work very hard to prove the point. You should work so that people will understand that you are difficult to replace. But your goal should not be to maintain your status as irreplaceable. Your goal should be to make whatever contribution you can, and then find ways of recruiting other people to devote their time, money, and emotional commitment to pursuing whatever it is that you have begun to pursue.

I think of the statement by Gary Allen. He worked for the John Birch Society. He once said of the Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch, that Welch wanted to prove two things. First, he wanted to create the most effective anti-Communist organization in the world. Second, he wanted to prove that he was the only person capable of running it. As it turned out, in 1964, Welch changed his entire way of thinking. He moved from anti-Communism to anti-conspiracy. He did this in a booklet called More Stately Mansions. What he had originally set out to create, an anti-Communist organization, rarely spoke about Communism after 1964. If it did speak about Communism, it was Communism as an aspect of the international conspiracy, which was not at bottom communist. The John Birch Society focused far more on the Federal Reserve System and the Council on Foreign Relations after 1964 than it did on domestic Communism or international Communism. As it has turned out, that shift in focus was just what was needed. International Communism is gone, domestic Communism is gone, but the Federal Reserve System and the Council on Foreign Relations still run the show.

I do not generally recommend people take vows. There is nothing in the Bible that says that people must make vows to God. The chapter on vows is Numbers 30. The rules are strict. Do not make a vow unless you intend to fulfill it, and, after you have made it, you must fulfill it. This is why it is not a good idea to take vows, because people find it difficult to fulfill the terms of their vows. The more rigorous the vow, and the longer it extends, the more difficult it is to maintain the terms of the vow.

Cumulative Growth

My work on Christian economics is the story of the tortoise, not the hare. I achieved this only through a steady, plodding, low-rate-of-return operation. I had to fund all of it after 1975. The 10 hours a week on the commentary was nothing compared to the hours I had to invest to do the writing to make the money to fund the publication of the books. Then I had to market the books.

As it has turned out, the publication of books today is vastly easier and less expensive than it was prior to the Internet. If I had spent the same amount of time doing research instead of the marketing, I would probably have finished this project two decades ago. But there was no way of knowing this. Also, the early publications did build up a small audience of people who are interested in the topic. We never know whether or not some technology will come to our assistance before we finish a long-term project. So, we move ahead with the project, even though the technology may come to our rescue.

It is one of those strange coincidences that I began fulfilling the vow in August of 1977. That was when I moved into the house for which I had made the vow. That was the month my son was born. Today, on my 70th birthday, the day on which my vow is fulfilled, my son is getting married. He will establish a marriage based on a vow. His vow will be a lot more comprehensive than 10 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, with two weeks off for vacation.

I knew before I began that knowledge is cumulative. We learn little by little, line upon line. There is a steady accumulation of knowledge, and then there is a breakthrough. The breakthrough is relevant within the framework that was used to pursue the subject matter. This is basic to almost all of life: continuity followed by discontinuity. Continuity goes on for a long period of time, and then a discontinuity accelerates the process. This breakthrough should be consistent with it, and it should not overturn it entirely, but it must develop it. There is a beginning, there is an end, then there is progressive continuity in between. There are breakthroughs that take place, but they should not be allowed to undermine the continuity, merely speed up its extension and broaden its extension. If you start with the truth, and you have held to the truth, it is not supposed to turn into falsehood.

A good way to describe this is by examining marriage. A person does not become more married over time. The marriage is established definitively by an exchange of vows, and extends through time. It becomes a better marriage. Anyway, it is supposed to be a better marriage. But its judicial characteristic as a marriage is no greater at the death of a partner than it was at the beginning of the marriage. There is continuity, but there is also progress. Children change the relationship dramatically. Successes and crises change the relationship. Yet we speak of the marriage as being intact. There is discontinuity within a framework of continuity.

This principle applies to every area of life. There is mostly continuity, but with progress, there will be a series of discontinuities that strengthen and extend the earlier social order. This is a conservative view of social theory. It is most associated with the name of Edmund Burke. Burke was a great fan of Adam Smith, and Smith was a great fan of Edmund Burke. Each man believed in progress. Each man believed in historical continuity. Each man believed that the free market would extend liberty. But Burke spoke mostly about continuity. His famous phrase was this: men have a contract with the past, the present, and future generations. (With respect to civil order, we should call this a covenant, not a contract.) The same is true of marriage. The same is also true of the church. There is continuity between past, present, and future. This continuity is what gives us hope that our efforts today will amount to something tomorrow. Our confidence in the continuity of our efforts is supposed to spur us on to greater effort, precisely because of the compounding effect of progress. Little by little, line by line, things improve.

This is how you should think of your work. I don’t mean primarily your job; I mean your calling. You should be convinced that, if you devote years to some project that is worth doing, that, at the end of your life, you will be able to look back and see significant progress. You will be able to look back and see that, when you began the project, there were lots of things missing. You have been able to add to the community’s understanding, wealth, or whatever it was that you began to work on all those years ago.

People who do not have confidence regarding their efforts in the present find it very difficult to maintain a level of commitment that is required to make significant changes in any area of life. I read a statement by the Canadian novelist and historian James Bacque. He said that, with respect to marriage, love is not a substitute for determination. That pretty well says it.

Taking a vow does increase the likelihood of maintaining one’s determination. You stick with the program because you promised God that you would stick with the program. If you made the promise to somebody else, then a similar kind of commitment is required. This is why vows are productive, but it is also why vows are dangerous. Breaking a vow is a form of radical discontinuity. It is not a productive form of discontinuity. It interrupts the compounding process.

Did my 1977 vow work? Yes, it did. It enabled me to finish this project. Anyway, it enabled me to finish the groundwork of this project, namely, the exegetical work necessary to find out what the Bible really does say about economics. This had never been attempted before. It had to be done.

Did it work with my house? Yes, it did. We were taken out to see half a dozen houses by a particular real estate agent. We kept telling him what we wanted to buy, and he kept ignoring what we were telling him. He was unable to make the connection between what we were telling him in the house as he was showing us. So, the next day, we found a woman who did listen to us. She showed us three very nice houses in the first three houses we visited. One house, though, was spectacular. It was selling for $59,000. (In today’s money, $219,000.) It was a 3500 square foot, two-story brick home, with a basement. It was on an acre of land in a very nice area of Durham. We were the second family to see that house. It had been on the market about 45 minutes. We were told by the agent that houses at that time were on the market for about six months. We decided to buy the house before the day was over. We made an offer: $58,000. She submitted the offer. The offer was accepted. The next day, the family that had seen the house 45 minutes before we did made an offer on the house. They did not get the house.

The house was not the key factor in my motivation for taking the vow. I really didn’t need to know that I had made a binding promise to stick with the program for the next 34+ years. It has taken the entire 35 years to get to the final stage of the third phase of the project. I did not waste a lot of time.

Conclusion

I encourage you to find something in your life where you can make a significant contribution. You may not think that you can do this, but if you systematically stick with the program, you can achieve amazing things. The effect of compound growth is remarkable. You do a little bit each year, but it adds up. In my case, it has added up to something in the range of 12,000 pages.

_____________________________________

Posted on July 13, 2022. Published originally on February 11, 2012.

—<Quote ends>—

I doubt if any modern pagan is interested in completing a 34-year project on anything.

Never mind a vow.

Assuming that he even knows what a vow is.

But what is outside the reach of unbelievers, even outside their mental universe, is within the grasp of the disciplined and faithful follower of Christ.


I like Howard Ruff of the Ruff times. He left a good legacy, both in writing and in children & grandchildren.

I would rather have you imitate North, and make great, material strides forward in our understanding of God, pushing both His victory and the defeat of all His enemies.

But theology is a difficult business, when you approach it with the required intensity and integrity. There may be other, better ways for you to expand the Kingdom.

Don’t let the time needed daunt you.

And if you keep your promise to God, God will keep His side of the bargain.

Not a problem.

I do not generally recommend people take vows. There is nothing in the Bible that says that people must make vows to God. The chapter on vows is Numbers 30. The rules are strict. Do not make a vow unless you intend to fulfill it, and, after you have made it, you must fulfill it. This is why it is not a good idea to take vows, because people find it difficult to fulfill the terms of their vows. The more rigorous the vow, and the longer it extends, the more difficult it is to maintain the terms of the vow.

Fair warning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.