#99 Faith and Freedom

the christian economist dave arnott

#99 Faith and Freedom

God gives us the freedom to choose or reject HIs offer of salvation.
So we assume He wants us to be as free as possible in our economic lives. 

Freedom is not free

Free is not freedom

When I encounter someone who has served in the military, my common expression is “Thank you for your service to our country.”  Perhaps the most interesting response I received was a young man who said, “Thank you for having a country worth serving.”  Now, that’s interesting.  He assumed that old guys like me built and sustained the country through our economic, religious, and civic behavior, so he had a country to serve.  As I’ll point out in a few minutes, it’s quite clear that freedom is not free.  It has to be won, and sustained.  

Now, what about that second part: Free is not freedom?  As my buddy Sergiy Saydometov says, “College education can be provided free, but it can’t be produced free.”  That’s pretty insightful, but it comes from one of the most common phrases in economics: There is no such thing as a free lunch.   There’s  a a picture of Milton Freidman saying it.  When you’re given something free, SOMEONE had to pay for it.  You gain a moral debt.  When the government provides it, maybe you’ve incurred even more debt, because “The Government has no money.”  That means, those resources had to be extracted from someone else, before they could be given to you.  I could devolve into a long explanation about the morality of accepting things for free, but I need to return to my subject of Christian Economics. 

The Intersection of Christianity and Economics

The Light of the World is a painting by William Holman Hunt.  You are supposed to notice that there is no handle on Jesus’ side of the door.  That means, God, the greatest being that anyone ever conceived of, gives us humans the choice to accept or reject his offer of salvation.  That’s hard to wrap you’re brain around.  It is “other-worldly,” so you have to suspend rational economic thought to understand that one.  If God gives us the choice to accept or reject His invitation of salvation, we have to think he wants us to have as much freedom as possible in our economic lives.  Not total freedom, because we live in a fallen world, but as much freedom as possible.  That’s why, when writing our book Biblical Economic Policy, the first of ten Biblical Commandments of Economics Sergiy Saydometov and I found is called People Should be Free.  The intersection of Christianity and Economics is freedom.  

How we See God

That’s an interesting subject in Christian Economics.  You see, Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in the middle of the Scottish Enlightenment.  In his new book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Benjamin Freidman explains there was a significant change going on in the Scottish belief system and its churches during this time period, led by John Knox.  They were leaving the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and were moving toward a more human-empowering view that individuals had the choice to accept or reject salvation.  I’ve often crossed myself in class and said, “How we see God has a lot to do with how we see our fellow man.”  And, that’s what led Adam Smith to write his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which assumed our actions were the result of the impartial spectator.  Later, he wrote The Wealth of Nations, which explains how our actions align with human needs on a more macro level.  

This Scottish Enlightenment also produced James Watt who perfected the steam engine in 1776, and James Wilson who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Don’t overlook the importance of the belief system of the Scottish Enlightenment.  Those three events provided the thrust forward: Adam Smith in economics, James Watt in technology, and James Wilson in political governance.  It’s more than coincidence that all three of them were at Glasgow University from 1759-1762.  Think about it: The three seminal events that made us financially free of poverty, physically free of muscle power, and politically free of monarchy, were promoted by three Scottish gentlemen who served together at Glasgow University.  Wouldn’t you love to turn back the clock and happen into a pub where the three of them were having a pint?  As a student, would you arrive on time for a lecture that featured Smith, Watt, and Wilson?  You see, atheists see correlational events and call them a coincidence.  Christians see the same event and call it providence. 

Two Guys

But actually, I wanted to talk about Adam Smith and another guy in today’s podcast.  I’ve already introduced that guy, Adam Smith, who really needs no introduction.  So, let me introduce the other guy: William Wilberforce.  

Wilberforce was best buds with William Pitt when they were both students at Cambridge.  They did a lot of drinking, gambling, and carousing, as most college students did in those days.  William Pitt was from a very politically influential family, and Wilberforce was the fastest rise star on the English political scene.  They were hatching a plan to control the government of Great Britain.  William Pitt succeeded by becoming Prime Minister in 1783 at the age of 24.  But William Wilberforce accepted Christ, and thought he should change his ways.  He spent some time with pastor John Newton, the former slave-trader who wrote Amazing Grace.  Newton encouraged him to stay in government, saying he would do the world more good there, than in the pulpit.  Side note: We have a Wilberforce room in the building where I teach at Dallas Baptist University, to remind our students that they can serve God outside formal ministry, and about 90% of them do.  Wilberforce would later write an apologetics books titled A Practical View of Christianity, sort of a Mere Christianity of its time. 

England was a nasty place in the last years of the 18th century.  They essentially believed that the poor were made that way by God’s choice, and that it was improper to help them.  That’s why Wilberforce had two missions in his life: The abolition of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners.  By manners, he didn’t mean which fork to use.  He meant caring for the poor and many other Biblical behaviors I don’t have time to list today.  At one time, he was a member of 69 different community service groups that cared for the poor in multiple different ways.  The end of the story: He was successful.  Slavery was ended in Great Britain in 1833, 32 years before the US.  

By the way, I’ve mentioned Wilberforce at length in a previous podcast.  In #72 titled Two Worlds, I make the rather dire prediction that the sacred/secular split will widen, and I give two role models for dealing with it.  Wilberforce’s membership in the Clapham Society is one of those pieces of advice.  And, it’s where our story takes us today.  Last summer I was reading a bibliography of Adam Smith, not surprisingly titled Adam Smith, by Jesse Norman.  I obtained one good fact from that book.  It seems that during one of his visits to London, Adam Smith had dinner with William Wilberforce and the Clapham group.  Think about it: William Wilberforce, the man who set the world on the path to end slavery, had dinner with Adam Smith, the man who set the world on the path to end poverty.  We have not ended either of them yet, but as I point out in Podcast #9 The Poor Will Not Always be With You, we’re closer than we’ve ever been.  Oh, and that slavery thing: We’re pretty close on that also, but it gets extended by Socialism, as I point out in podcast #61 Socialism and Slavery.   What do you think these two men talked about?  I think they talked about my subject today: Faith and Freedom. 

For Wilberforce: There are many books about his life, but I tend to like the book titled Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas.  

Labor Freedom

Before we leave the slavery issue, I should quote Abraham Lincoln, who said, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”  

The French government sent Alexis de Tocqueville to study the US penal system in 1831.  He studied more than that, he travelled all over the developed part of the country and made very insightful observations about US religion and the resulting freedoms in his 1835 book titled Democracy in America.  He is most-often cited for his mention of what he called “associationalism.”  In Europe in the early 19th century, everything of significance was done by the monarch.  If you wanted a park built, you petitioned the king.  If you wanted a road built, you asked the queen.  But Tocqueville observed that Americans built their own culture and society by joining public service groups.  They had the freedom to build their own society, that Europeans did not enjoy. 

One of the most insightful observations was when Tocqueville was sailing down the Ohio river with the free state of Ohio on his right and slave-state Kentucky on his left.  He noticed that Kentucky was under-developed because the slave labor was terribly inefficient.  The slaves were not motivated nor well-trained, and they had poor tools.  Motivation, training and tools are three of the greatest predictors of economic productivity, straight out of Econ 101.  He noticed that free Ohio on the right bank was more developed, because workers were motivated, well-trained and had superior tools.  Think about it: Free labor was more expensive than paid labor.  There are multiple Civil War era historians who will clearly lay out the case that the North won the war because of their superior economy, so I will allow you to get that information elsewhere.  

This is one of those wonderful places where Christianity and Economics agree.  Christianity is concerned about the means and whether a concept is right or wrong.  Economics is almost purely concerned with the ends, or the outcomes.  Slavery loses on both issues.  Freedom is both morally right, and economically right. 

Freedom reducers

The government is attempting to reduce many economic freedoms today.  Taxes are a prime example. I point out in podcast #49 titled How Would Jesus Tax?,  that taxes are stealing, but are a necessary evil in a fallen world.  But, it should be abundantly clear that lower taxes provide more freedom than higher taxes. 

Minimum wage takes away the freedom of labor suppliers and buyers to agree to a wage of their choice.  It also discriminates against the poor as I’ve pointed out in my very first podcast #1 titled The Christian View of Minimum Wage.

Labor unions reduce the freedom of folks to supply their labor on their own, without collective bargaining.  And it hamstrings labor buyers, as I’ve pointed out in podcast #52 titled Unions Cause Dis-union in the Union.  

National debt reduces the future freedom of everyone in the economy.  This is pretty simple economics: Does debt cause more or less freedom?  Pretty easy question. 

Ginger and I watched a 2007 movie called Lions for Lambs.  It’s about Afghanistan and makes an eerily prescient prediction about what would happen if the US left.  Essentially, it happened last month.  The three main characters in the story tell different views about the necessity for war.  They want you to leave the theatre thinking war is a waste of resources.  But Robert Redford had the freedom to produce the movie without government censorship.  His character in the movie was a college professor who had academic freedom in the classroom.  The lead character was a journalist, played by Meryl Streep who had freedom to publish or not publish the story.  Matter of fact: That’s the key struggle in the movie: Should the journalist support a Senator’s wishes, and publish a story?  Think about it: The movie’s main character is making a free choice in a movie that’s asking whether there should be freedom!!  Ginger and I were free to watch the movie without censorship.  And, we’re supposed to leave the theatre thinking those freedoms are a bad thing?  Then, we wouldn’t have the movie to watch.  Oh, maybe they assume freedom is free.  Well, that would be a pretty unrealistic assumption that I unpack in podcast #78 where I ask the question, Are We Born Good?  Barack Obama borrowed the phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well, first it does not.  Because people have a fallen nature, the long arc of history bends toward chaos, injustice, and dictatorship.  Even if it DID bend toward justice, millions of lives would be lost while it made its long arc.    

Angus Deaton won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Economics.  His book, titled The Great Escape, is about how humans escaped poverty after thousands of years when life was short and brutish.  The first line reads, “Life is better now than anytime in history.”  It is, because of faith and freedom.


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