Agency

I’ve noticed that I have been trying to reconcile two particular ways of looking at the world, namely some kind of techno-futurist Marginal Revolution-ism that owes a lot to Peter Thiel (I’m all ears for an alternative name) and conservative Christianity. Perhaps my attempt at doing so below will be useful to others who identify with one of these groups.

The core ideas I’ve settled on are:

  • Agency: we can change the future and escape decadence, and individuals have a role to play in this.
  • Freedom (economic, political, religious) is good, to a very significant extent.
  • Economic growth is good.
  • The state should not do everything, but there are some things it definitely should do.
  • What we inherit from the past is valuable, but the long-term future matters too.
  • Technology can do great things, but is not an absolute good.
  • The local matters too (church, jobs, economy), and it is the place that most people should be acting in. This helps guard against centralisation.

I’ll explore agency below, and later posts will address the other ideas.

If you believe in agency, you believe the direction of society can be changed, and individual people have the ability to shape that change at the margin. Culture, demographics, economic and political outcomes — all are changeable in the long term. We don’t have to be decadent; fatalism is for losers. The pie can grow as well as get cut up differently. (If you need to be convinced that decadence is bad, read this).

The idea of a better future is more prevalent in America than in Europe, and relatively more prevalent in the UK than the rest of Europe.

Agency is thus dependent upon definite optimism, i.e. the future will be better than the present if you plan and work to make it so (see Peter Thiel’s Zero to One for the original articulation of definite optimism, pp. 57-81).

Agency isn’t just abstract – some people show that they believe in agency through what they do. There is a natural symmetry, for example, between starting a company and planting a church — both represent a bet on change. Planting a church is anti-decadent because the planters believe that the spiritual state of people and whole communities can change, even if it’s not guaranteed. It’s the spiritual and cultural version of starting a company.

Agency is also present in the Bible: God provides an extensive set of laws for the Israelites in the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21).

In the New Testament, Jesus preached against the legalism of the Pharisees. They followed rules to make themselves feel righteous. Jesus instead emphasised the maximal nature of the Christian life. The most important commandments are to love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). This is much more radical than the decadent legalism of the Pharisees. Ticking these boxes to make yourself righteous (Mark 2:23-3:6; 7:1-13) is small-minded. Genuine Christianity is different; you should do all the good you can by loving God and loving others. The requirements are much grander, but Christians can pursue them.*

Jesus also uses the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) to show that the Christian life is not about your achievements in absolute terms, but about making good use of what God has given you. Everyone can use whatever they have to make things better.

The New Testament often says that you can change the world around you. Jesus told his disciples to go out and preach the gospel before he ascended into heaven (Matthew 28:16-20). Preaching the gospel, loving others, building healthy churches — all of these will lead to change (Ephesians 4-6; Colossians 3-4; 2 Timothy 2-4; 1 Peter 1-2). This is definite optimism — do these things, and you will see a different outcome.

Everyone can act and their actions matter.


Thanks to Jeff Huber, Noah Schmidt and Leopold Aschenbrenner for reading versions of this. I’m going to explore the other ideas in my list in future posts. Let me know what you think, and subscribe if you want to read more.

*Some caveats: Jesus didn’t invent those commands (they’re in the Old Testament, see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, 34). But the Israelites had used the law for their own ends and forgotten the point of it, which was to highlight their need for God. Paul’s letter to the Roman church is the best place to go for discussion of this. Additionally, the Bible teaches that you need God’s help to live in this radical, transformed way — you need to become a Christian (Mark 8:34-38; John 3).

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