#85 Safety vs Freedom

the christian economist dave arnott

#85 Safety vs Freedom

The intersection of Christianity and Economics is freedom.  Since we can’t make it a perfect world, the Christian Worldview favors freedom over safety.

The intersection of Christianity and Economics is freedom.  We believe God, the greatest being any human ever conceived of, gives us humans the freedom to accept or reject His offer of salvation.  We assume then, that He wants us to have as much freedom as possible in our economic lives.

When you hear the term “economics,” you too often think about finance, which is the economic distribution of money.  But economics is the study of the production and distribution of scarce resources.  I tell my Dallas Baptist University students that they should practice economics in dating, and only date one person at a time.  If you’re watching this podcast, you can’t watch another at the same time.  This is called opportunity cost.  My subject today is the opportunity cost trade-off between safety and freedom. 

Covid Masking

In a Wall Street Journal editorial this week, Andy Kessler was getting some digs in on California Governor Gavin Newsome, for extending his emergency powers when they are no longer needed.  In his article, “Maskless Among the Lemmings,” he reports that he was the only one of 50 shoppers at Trader Joe’s who was not wearing a mask.  He reasonably wondered what his fellow shoppers were protecting themselves from.   “Were these 49 shoppers simply Linuses unwilling to let go of their security blankets?” He asked

Dennis Prager said this week, “You are not on earth to be safe. You are on earth to lead a full life.”  He’s Jewish, and I’m Christian, so I will add a New Testament citation from John 16:33 “In this world you will have trouble.”  We should expect trouble.  Jesus was not promising a life without trouble, He was promising a life with believers who would help us through trouble. 

Both the Kessler and Prager quotes could be seen as an economic shifting of sentiments: Away from the family, and toward the government.  I have used the term “economics” to mean the distribution of scarce resources.  Social interaction is scarce, so it’s an economic good.  You either get it from your family or from the Government.  Prager has been on a scree against medical facilities who forced family members to die on their own without the aid and comfort of family.  You see, that’s the entire Socialist mentality: You don’t need your family, the government will take care of you.  That is not Biblical.  

The day an atheist, who grew up Muslim in a Hindu culture, told a Christian with a Jewish savior that he would be a good Buddhist.  Let me explain.  During my PhD studies, my major professor was a wonderful man from a Muslim family in India.  He was an atheist at the time.  I am the Christian with a Jewish savior.  He wanted me to join some kind of academic association and I declined.  He said I would make a good Buddhist because I didn’t want to join the association.  By the way, I would not be a professor today, without the help and support of this wonderful man.  To repeat: That’s the day an atheist, who grew up Muslim in a Hindu culture, told a Christian with a Jewish savior that he would be a good Buddhist.  

The Buddhist belief is that suffering comes from attachment, so don’t get attached.  In this sense, it would say that suffering comes from taking risks, so don’t take any.  That’s not a Christian belief.  Our bumper sticker of life is more like, “Better to love and lost, than to not love at all.”  The US Government’s move toward separating families from their loved ones is Buddhist because it favors safety over freedom.  The Christian worldview favors freedom. 

The Dismal Science

There have been plagues for centuries.  In Martin Luther, Eric Metaxes writes about Luther surviving at least one plague during his protestant movement. 

Interesting that they said the “economy” was shut down.  I guess as an economist, I should feel flattered, but it’s more than the economy.  We are more than homo economis – a latin term used by Abraham Kuyper in this new book, On Business & Economics.  We are more than producers and distributors of goods and services.  We are fully orbed human beings, not just human doings.  As Tiger Woods famously said, “Golf is what I do, it’s not who I am.”  

The sub-title I suggested for my first book Corporate Cults was “When What I do becomes who I am,” but the publisher changed it to “The insidious lure of the all-consuming organization.”  So when the media started saying that Covid stopped the economy, they were assuming that we are only what we do.  That’s not consistent with the Christian worldview.  We are social beings.  Not attending to your loved ones when they die, or skipping a family wedding or Memorial Day event is much more social than economic.  

In Biblical Economic Policy, Sergiy Saydometov and I write that one of the Ten Commandments of Biblical Economics is “Work is good.”  While there certainly is a good middle-place between safety and freedom, it seems like many of the draconian safety rules during the Covid pandemic violated the Christian call to work. 

My sophomores at Dallas Baptist University are often astounded to find out how loosely wrapped the world is.  They seem to think that all those “beeps” at the Home Depot checkout stand get forwarded to Jerome Powell at the Federal Reserve Bank and he gets a report at the end of each day.  Not hardly.  Nobody knows where the economy is, nor where it’s going.  We only know where we’ve been, after we’ve been there.  As Mark Twain said, “Predictions are difficult, especially those about the future.”  When I was collecting information for my dissertation on US-Russian joint ventures, I picked up the idea that, in Russia, it’s even hard to predict history, because the totalitarian dictators change it at will.  

We don’t know where the economy is.  That’s part of the reason economics is called the “dismal science.”  Although Thomas Carlyle may have been referring to the dismal forecasts made by Pastor Thomas Malthus in 1797, that we would over-populate the earth and cause mass famine.  

Risk and Return

Benjamin Franklin said “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The short definition of finance is risk and return.  There are risks in everything.

Ginger and I were watching a particularly engaging episode of HGTV, and the designer wanted a bathroom installed in a third-floor attic.  The contractor replied, “We can do it, but is the juice worth the squeeze?”  Our nephew got married in September in the midst of the pandemic.  Most of the family attended.  The juice was worth the squeeze.  Seeing family and sharing in an event that has been repeated since recorded history, was worth the risk.  No cases were reported after the three-day wedding event. 

32,000 people will die in auto accidents this year, yet we all travel in vehicles, just about every day.  The juice is worth the squeeze.  The risk of an auto accident is less than the reward of arriving at work, church, or visiting our grandkids.

I have visited 55 countries, and Ginger has been to 40.  Some of them were dangerous, and in a future podcast I will tell you how I was Mugged on the Midnight Train to Moscow.  But this is an interesting fact: I felt safer in Communist countries: Russia, China, and Vietnam, than I have in relatively free democracies.  That’s because the judicial system is so tough on crime.  There’s no “three-strike” rule in China.  You’re welcome to wonder where the lax US judicial ideas came from.  Where did they get this idea of forgiveness and redemption?  Yes, it’s from the Christian Worldview.   

I visited with an American military retiree who lived with his family in Hanoi.  When I asked why he lived there, he said, “It’s the safest place on earth.  I can put my 14-year-old daughter in a cab and send her across town, knowing she will arrive safely.”  Ok, let’s think about this in economic terms, and ask the question, what does he give up to gain that safety?  He gives up a lot of freedom, and that’s exactly what you have seen through the last 15 months of government-ordered lock-downs of the US economy.  We gained safety, at the expense of freedom.  Which do you want?  The Christian worldview favors freedom. 

Life is Valuable

In 2020, the worst year of Covid, it was the third highest cause of death behind heart disease and cancer.  The point is: We live in a dangerous world. 

This fall, a few Texas high school football players will die of heat prostration during August practices.  There will predictably be calls for ending High School football.  But here’s how an economist sees it.  His assumption is not that the football players would sit in the library all afternoon.  They would be out drinking, driving fast cars, and chasing girls.  Sometimes, all three at the same time.  The death rate among that demographic would go up, not down.  See, that’s how economists think: And this is an interesting, and I think insightful intersection for Christianity and economics: The assumption of a fallen, imperfect world.  Economists make that assumption, and it’s drawn directly from the fallen nature that we find in the Christian Worldview.  

650,000 Americans have died of Covid.  I really do NOT mean to be insensitive about this.  I have the greatest personal concern for people who have lost family members.  So, after that apology, I will attempt to state some economic truths, without hurting your feelings.  Many of the Covid deaths were among the aged.  Would none of them have died of something else?  Certainly, some would have.  See, that’s how economists think.  When the media reports the 650,000 deaths, they start from a baseline of zero.  Economists start from the baseline that would be expected for deaths among that population.  

In 2002, Goldman-Sachs used the resources of land, labor and capital to predict that Brazil, Russia, India, and China would lead the world in economic development.  I took DBU MBA students to each of those countries during successive Spring and Fall breaks in 2009 and 2010.  We were fascinated by a presentation by a lawyer at the US consulate in New Dehli.  He was breezing through some powerpoint slides, when my daughter, who accompanied me on the trip, asked him to back up.  He did, and read the slide, “Life is not valuable in India.”  “Could you explain that please?”  My daughter asked.  He said it was very easy.  Since the Hindu belief system believed that each person had earned their current position in life from their behavior in the last life, and more importantly that if you do well in this life, you will advance in the next, THIS life is not important.  We were stunned.  Now, many of the seemingly dangerous practices of everyday Indian life made sense.  The barefoot laborers sitting cross-legged on the top of the truck cabs.  The poor sanitation in the slums.  Their lives were not valuable. 

But you see, in the Christian worldview, life IS valuable.  Yes, we believe we will go to a better place in heaven, but no one is anxious to leave this one. 

No Utopia

Utopian Ideas Deny the Fallen Nature.  Can’t we build a just society? The answer: we should do everything we can to build a more just society and a more just world, or as the authors of the constitution said it, “A more perfect union.”  But the worst way to do that is to try to create an egalitarian utopia.  The world is not perfect, and we can’t make it that way. But we can make it better. In their very good book titled Economics in Christian Perspective, Klaar and Klay state it this way, “Society makes opportunity cost trade-offs. Environmental pollution provides a good example. The optimal level of pollution cleanup for a society is not zero. Neither is it 100 percent. The optimal level of pollution cleanup lies at the point where we decide additional cleanup is not worth the time, trouble, and money. We should clean up our environment until things are “good enough,” and then move on to more urgent tasks.”  Recognizing that heaven on earth is impossible, we do not pursue utopian schemes.  

When we see the world through our Christian worldview lens—creation, fall, redemption—we find answers to our questions about how to distribute scarce goods in a fallen world. In How then Should we Work, Hugh Whelchel says it this way, “We will never create full shalom in this current age.”   It’s not a perfect world, and we can’t make it perfect. We have to settle for marginal improvements.

And we have to understand the economic trade-off between safety and freedom. 

Watch the Full Episode Here


Books Referred Within This Episode:

Biblical Economic Policy https://amzn.to/3zrGano
Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization https://amzn.to/3xdiSQ0
Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices https://amzn.to/2SusuXV
Martin Luther: https://amzn.to/3djhMuO
Business & Economics https://amzn.to/3x2nIzR