As supporters of economic freedom, we frequently find ourselves in vigorous defense of personal choice, whether in business, trade, consumer goods, education, or otherwise.
But while the elevation of economic choice is based on plenty of principle, not to mention historical and empirical analysis, we ought to be careful that our views about freedom aren’t confused or conflated in the process. Given our cultural appetite for turning choice into an idol above all else, it’s a risk we’d do well to confront and diffuse.
Readers of this blog will no doubt be reminded of Lord Acton’s popular refrain: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Or the variation from Pope John Paul II: “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
This basic contrast — between what we might call “Christian freedom” and secular or modern notions of the same — is crucial for navigating these debates, with an embrace of the former stretching well before and beyond whatever advocacy we ought to indulge as it relates to “individual choice.”
Over at First Things, Dan Hitchens recently offered some insights along these same lines:
The Christian idea [of freedom] is a broader one. For Christians, freedom consists not in how many choices you have but in whether you can choose the right thing, the good thing. If Fred is keeping his options open about whether to join the Ku Klux Klan, and Ben has decided he will never do so, Fred is not freer; quite the opposite. When Einstein discovered special relativity, he did not become less free because he was now unable to believe a dozen alternative theories. When Mozart decided how the Jupiter Symphony had to end, he did not lose freedom merely because of all the other possibilities he was compelled to give up.
The model of a free human being, then, is not the person who has so much money, time, and imagination that he can do whatever comes into his head, but someone who will choose the good: who knows just how to make a friend happy, or who, offered the chance to become wealthy through committing fraud, can turn it down without a second thought. As the Catechism says, “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.”
Hitchens is responding to some specific squabbles over a particular social issue, an area of tension which often determines the dividing line between “conservative” and “libertarian.” But regardless of where we fall on all that, we ought not ignore that such a distinction bears similar weight when it comes to economics, regardless of the effect (or lack of effect) on the specifics of public policy.
Again, the policy merits of promoting economic choice have plenty of sound backing. Indeed, choosing the good does, of course, require the ability or capacity or freedom to choose the good. But we needn’t take for granted that the moral fabric necessary for all this actually exists between the individual and the State.
True freedom isn’t a given or guarantee, no matter how much economic choice our government grants us.
The question, then, for the Christian supporter of economic freedom, is whether we’re also willing to uphold virtue, constraint, and spiritual obedience as key ingredients to that bigger picture, stewarding our choice with wisdom and grace. This may not lead to significant changes in policy, but it will surely lead to a new vocabulary and a renewed focus on the power of spiritual and moral transformation at the other levels and layers of culture.
In a society with economic freedom, we have so much more than terrific consumer choices, wild paths to entrepreneurship, and an abundance of time and treasure. We also have tremendous capacity to choose the good — to align our lives and actions to God’s call over our lives, thus aligning our hands and hearts to the needs of others. But if we forget that basic purpose, we risk a failure to connect the dots, confusing a policy that maximizes choice with a life (and society) of true freedom lived in Christ.