Is economic liberty necessary for human flourishing?
Religion & Liberty Online

Is economic liberty necessary for human flourishing?

Note: A few weeks ago I asked why conservative Christian outlets are increasingly promoting socialist ideas and policies. My friend Jake Meador weighed in to help provide some perspective on this trend. Jake himself is the editor of an online Christian magazine—Mere Orthodoxy—that would be described as traditionalist conservative. While he is not a socialist, he admits he is somewhat sympathetic to the “emerging leftism” of young Christians, especially those within Catholic and evangelical circles.

Jake and I have been carrying on a dialogue about this issue in the hopes not only of better understanding each other’s positions but also in the hopes of finding more common ground on the role of economic liberty in the Christian life.

The first article in this series is “How Christian conservatives are breeding Bolsheviks” and the second was “How government regulation—not free markets—caused the financial crisis.” This post is a response to the first half of Jake’s latest entry, “Little Platoons and the Market.”

Jake opens the latest entry in our engagement by saying:

In his response to Andrew Strain, Joe Carter noted that one of Strain’s problems is the assumption that “some other people—rather than those directly engaged in the market activity—should decide what is best for those involved.”

Well, yes—at least in a way.

This isn’t a crazy idea or even a weird one. Seen rightly, it is both common sensical and a principle that many of us already follow in our daily lives. Because other people are implicated in the decisions we make, it is not unreasonable to think that someone other than ourselves should be involved when we make an economic decision.

Jake is right. It’s not crazy or even weird to think other people should be involved when we make economic decisions. But that’s not quite the claim I was making. My position is that in most cases other people not directly involved shouldn’t get to decide what is best for those involved. This too isn’t crazy or even weird, for while we often ask other people about what we should do when engaging in transactions we rarely let other people make the decision for us.

Jake continues:

We are part of all sorts of different mini societies—families, churches, neighborhoods, companies, and so on. What one person does affects others. And it is not wrong to say that those others affected should have some role in making a decision. I suspect that Joe agrees with me on all these points.

I do indeed agree on all these points. He continues:

Indeed, much of the argument from Acton folks is, I think, an argument about how to maximize the liberty of those groups by minimizing the power of the group with coercive power—the government. What I think Joe misses is how his economic individualism undercuts these other societies we are part of.

Here is where I think we finally get to the heart of the disagreement—at least in part. Jake might be surprised to find that I mostly agree that “economic individualism” can undercut these other societies we are part of. My point is that this is often a necessary and reasonable tradeoff for those of us who put a premium on human flourishing and the creation of a virtuous society.

I hope I can convince Jake of this point by showing how economic liberty is merely a extension of what I believe are other necessary liberties that can undercut these “other societies we are part of.”

Both Jake and I are, by nature and temperament, social conservatives. We are both, for example, concerned with ordered liberty and the preservation of family and the Christian faith. Where we may disagree is with what level of economic liberty is necessary to conserve society and promote human flourishing.

I don’t expect him to fully agree with my reasoning since many of my colleagues at the Acton Insitute may also disagree. The Acton Institute is an ecumenically broad organization, and while all of us here agree on the mission (to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles) and the core principles, we may do so for different reasons. My reasons are primarily rooted in my particular view of the American experiment and my religious tradition, specifically Southern Baptist. As both an American and a Baptist I believe the protection and primacy of certain individual liberties are necessary for virtuous people to truly flourish.

This is one of the reasons I’m a hardcore defender of religious liberty for all people.

For example, though as a Christian I think Islam is a false religion that is leading people to hell, I support the right of Muslims in American to build their own houses of worship. I agree with Russell Moore when he says,

[M]ust a person who believes Jesus Christ is the only way to God defend religious freedom for Christians and non-Christians alike?

One thing we need to be very clear about is that religious liberty is not a government “benefit,” but a natural and inalienable right granted by God. At issue is whether or not the civil state has the power to zone mosques or Islamic cemeteries or synagogues or houses of worship of whatever kind out of existence because of what those groups believe. When someone makes such a claim, that person is not standing up for Jesus and his gospel, but standing against them. To empower the state to command or to forbid worship is not fidelity to the Bible.

I believe religious freedom is a right given by God, not the government, and it necessary for our human flourishing. Yet I can also agree, and sympathize with, my fellow Christians who think religious liberty should be preserved only for Christians since it can undercut what Jake calls “different mini societies—families, churches, neighborhoods, companies, and so on.”

Similarly, I support a broad right to freedom of speech. Unlike libertarians, I believe government has a duty to restrict certain forms of “speech” such as pornography. But in general, I think a government that can tell virtue-oriented people what we can and can’t say hinders, rather than promotes, human flourishing. And yet, once again, I would say this individual liberty is worth defending even if the side effect is that it may undercut these other societies we are part of.

One of the core principles of the Acton Institute is that “Human persons are by nature acting persons. Through human action, the person can actualize his potentiality by freely choosing the moral goods that fulfill his nature.”

I believe freedom to choose one’s religion and speech are necessary because they allow us to freely choose the moral goods necessary to actualize our potentiality and lead to human flourishing.

Whether or not Jake agrees with me about those liberties, he seems to disagree with another of the Acton Institute’s Core Principles, the necessity of economic liberty:

Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one’s nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought. Economic liberty is a species of liberty so-stated. As such, the bearer of economic liberty not only has certain rights, but also duties. An economically free person, for example, must be free to enter the market voluntarily. Hence, those who have the power to interfere with the market are duty-bound to remove any artificial barrier to entry in the market, and also to protect private and shared property rights. But the economically free person will also bear the duty to others to participate in the market as a moral agent and in accordance with moral goods. Therefore, the law must guarantee private property rights and voluntary exchange.

As James Madison argued in Federalist Paper No. 10, the first object of any government is the protection of property. Alexis de Tocqueville also noted in Democracy in America that protection of private property translates into the protection of political rights even to the least of all citizens. But the individual and the government are not the sole concerns, especially if we give the power of veto to other parts of society.

As Jake noted other people—the “little platoons”—can also be affected by how we use economic liberty. Neither of us disagrees that those affected should have input on the decision or that individuals should take such concerns into consideration. The question is whether those affected should be able to veto our individual decisions or be the sole decider in how a person should use her private property, including her most important property—her labor.

In his article Jake quotes an article from Susannah Black in which she says, “The Republicans, in general, seem to have undermined the solidarity that there is meant to be between employer and employed, and between different classes.” Has the GOP really undermined such solidarity? I suspect the true reason we do not have the binding ties that say, a Japanese salaryman has with his company, is that we are more attuned in America to individual vocational preferences. And, I believe, we should be.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example to show why this is the case.

In 1987 the Big Widget Company agrees to open a factory in LittleTown, Nebraska. The company concedes their economic decisions could have a huge impact on the sustainability of LittleTown. But they also recognize the townspeople have just as significant an impact on the sustainability of the Big Widget Company. No one will move to LittleTown just for work and if the labor force dries up the company will go bankrupt. So the company offers a proposal to the town leaders: We will build the factory and stay for a minimum of 50 years. But in exchange the town has to agree that the sons and daughters of the townspeople will be obligated to work in the factory for a minimum of twenty years. If any child turns 18 and refuses to work in the factory, the company will immediately shut down operations and leave the town. The townspeople agree to this arrangement.

Almost twenty years later, a young resident of LittleTown named Jake is notified that he must go to work in the factory. He had hoped to go to college and become a writer—he believes it is his God-given calling in life—but is told his labor doesn’t really belong to him. Because the decision about what he will do with his labor (his property) affects the whole town, he is told what he does with his property (his labor) will be decided by the town.

Now Jake may be willing to sacrifice his own flourishing for the perceived good of his fellow townspeople. Yet he will likely recognize there is something inherently unjust about taking away his economic liberty and would be hesitant (I hope) of forcing others to comply with such a draconian demand. It would likely be a cold comfort to Jake or others to know they could speak freely and choose their own religion while being kept in vocational bondage against their will.

(But then again, maybe not. I’ll let Jake respond for himself.)

Do individuals make vocational choices and other economic decisions that detrimentally affect other people? No doubt. But is that sufficient reason to constrain individual human flourishing for all people? I don’t think it is. Indeed, I think the “little platoons” of society are harmed more by impeding such freedom than they are from allowing virtuous individuals to make such decisions for themselves. But why that is the case is an argument we’ll have to take up another time.

However, if we concede that we should have the freedom to determine how we use our property when it comes to labor, the question then becomes where and how do we place legitimate restrictions on virtuous people about how they can decide other market-based transactions?

Note: There is also more to Jake’s article that I hope to respond to later this week.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).