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Enjoying your weekend? Thank God and free markets

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No two words in the English language create the feeling of relaxation as perfectly as “summertime weekend.” But the two days of physical and spiritual rest we enjoy each week are not the inevitable products of the cosmic order: They have been made possible by the unique marriage of the free market and faith.

In the state of nature, rest follows work – or precedes death. Abraham Maslow codified in a precise way the fact that, only after we have met our physical needs can we relax and rejuvenate. Thankfully, providing these necessities is easier now than it has been at any time in the last two millennia, as the table below demonstrates:

 

The pronounced uptick in global wealth coincides with the growth of the free market – of entrepreneurship, technological progress, and freer trade within and among nations. (Fr. Robert Sirico discussed this chart during his plenary address to Acton University 2018, which you can see here.)

However, this chart only shows the picture in aggregate. A closer look shows that not all of the planet has shared equally in these benefits:

 

Socialist nations such as North Korea and Cuba have been caught in a virtual time-warp since data collection began.

Of course, despite socialism’s pretences, North Korea’s wealth is far from evenly distributed. But if it were, the average North Korean today would have the same GDP-per-person as the average American had in the 1770s and the average Briton enjoyed a century earlier.

Remember that the next time socialists accuse us of wanting to “turn back the clock.”

To take another example, modern China has experienced tremendous economic growth since Deng Xiaoping instituted market reforms in the late 1970s. But South Korea had already reached the same average GDP-per-person that China enjoys today around the time Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympic games. Hong Kong had the same prosperity shortly after Bruce Lee died. The UK reached that level the year that four lads from Liverpool formed the Beatles. And the U.S. had accrued the same wealth shortly before Pearl Harbor.

Some are tempted to believe this wealth has come about because Americans and British are working longer hours every year. One politician recently asserted, erroneously, that “unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs.” The truth is that Americans less likely to work two jobs than any time in decades – bivocational priests and pastors aside.

Others claim that capitalism stimulates an insatiable consumerism, fueling the never-ending treadmill of work-and-consumption necessary to “keep up with the Joneses.” In fact, citizens of developed capitalist countries work about 20 hours a week less than they did in 1870, despite a real growth in income, as this chart shows:

 

“The nine- to ten-fold increase in real incomes seen in industrialised countries between 1880 and 2000 coincided with a near halving of working hours,” wrote Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

On the other hand, socialism grinds down the alleged crown and summit of its society, the worker, with unending labor. Collectivist states consume their citizens’ leisure by forcing them to toil at inefficient and outmoded systems and conscripting them into various forms of state servitude. During his stay in North Korea, French cartoonist Guy Delisle observed, “With a six-day work week, one day of ‘volunteer work,’ and preparation for big events, the average citizen has almost no spare time. Body and soul serve the regime.”

The workers’ paradise has honored the worker by confining him exclusively to that role. “Capitalism,” Marian Tupy observed for the invaluable website Human Progress, “has delivered what Marx had long desired – less work and higher income.”

By incentivizing productivity, innovation, and cooperation for mutual advantage, the free market creates abundance, including technological advances that help workers create more goods in less time. With fewer working hours necessary for survival, the flourishing citizen has more money for luxury and more time for leisure. “The capitalist achievement,” wrote Joseph Schumpeter, “does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”

But free-market economics had an unsung and unappreciated assistant in this effort.

Christianity: The silent partner of progress

Prosperity’s silent partner has been the Christian religion.

Christianity teaches that work is holy and that uncovering scientific discoveries helps unlock the mystical order God wrote into all of creation. As James Hannam, author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, has written:

Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus.  … The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. …

[T]he era which was most dominated by Christian faith, the Middle Ages, was a time of innovation and progress. Inventions like the mechanical clock, glasses, printing and accountancy all burst onto the scene in the late medieval period. … Even the so-called “dark ages” from 500AD to 1000AD were actually a time of advance after the trough that followed the fall of Rome. Agricultural productivity soared with the use of heavy ploughs, horse collars, crop rotation and watermills, leading to a rapid increase in population. (Emphasis added.)

This weekend, perhaps you might take a few moments to enter one of those church buildings cum astronomical observation towers and give thanks for the religion that made this time of rest possible – and to the Author of creation Whose “mercies have brought all things from non-existence into being.”

(Photo credit: Dushan Hanuska. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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