Acton Institute Powerblog

More than a Moral Case for Free Enterprise

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Brian Fikkert, a Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College and the Executive Director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, takes a look at Arthur Brooks’ The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise in this week’s edition of CPJ’s Capital Commentary.

I think it’s a pretty balanced review, and Fikkert rightly highlights some of the important strength’s of Brooks’ work. But he also highlights some specifically theological concerns that have animated my own engagement with “happiness” research:

At a fundamental level, Christians must reject Brooks’ ethical standard: human happiness as defined by autonomous human beings. Brooks’ ethics are rooted in Enlightenment humanism rather than the transcendent standards of God’s moral decrees. To determine if the free enterprise system is moral, Christians must determine if it satisfies biblical standards of justice, not autonomous humans’ notions of happiness.

It’s important to note, of course, that as the head of AEI Brooks is making a case to a much more heterogeneous audience than simply like-minded Christians. And he’s trained as a social scientist, not as a theologian. But I think it would be interesting to hear how Brooks would address some of these challenges not firstly as the president of the American Enterprise Institute but as a professing Christian.

The answer Arthur Brooks gave to Josh Good of Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) at Dr. Brooks’ plenary at the most recent Acton University is a great place to start:

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Martial_Artist

    I would not be surprised, although I have no way of knowing with certainty, that Mr. Brooks, as well as the Acton Institute, would see free market economies in the light of Matthew 20:1-16 (the parable of the workers in the vineyard). To be more specific, consider the final portion of that parable in which the vineyard’s landowner says (Couay-Rheims (emphasis added):

    Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take what is thine, and
    go thy way: I will also give to this last even as to thee. Or, is it not lawful for
    me to do what I will?
    is thy eye evil, because I am good?

    This parable relies on an understanding by the hearer of what we refer to as the right of free association (which subsumes, or is at least consonant with the right of freedom of contract), which is at the root what a free market embodies and relies on, to communicate a message about God’s grace. Were it not assumed by our Lord that His hearers understood those rights, why would He have used it as the context of the message, and why would the landowner be free to assert that it is within his rights to dispose of the fruits of his land as he wishes?
    Given the above, it seems to me that Mr. Brooks is on rather solidly faithful Catholic ground, as is, I suspect, your President, Fr. Sirico. I say “suspect” only because I have acquired his latest book, but have not yet begun to read it.
    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • Martial_Artist

    Further, happiness may not be freedom in accordance with God’s ordinances, but the absence of happiness comes from being under the rule of those who fail to understand and to govern in accordance with God’s ordinances. I would humbly suggest that where the free market does not exist, it is because some of God’s ordinances are not being observed. We have abundant evidence from just the past century alone that where that is the case, there is not only no happiness, but numerous evils oppress the members of such societies.
    Keith Töpfer