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What St. Nicholas can teach us about economic freedom

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One of the most beloved figures of Christian history – St. Nicholas, the basis for the legend of Santa Claus – is commemorated around the world on December 6. An historical happenstance shows that his life still holds lessons for the piety and economics of the transatlantic sphere.

St. Nicholas, the archbishop of Myra in Asia Minor during the fourth century, is remembered for one example of his generous love of the poor. He learned that a wealthy man in his congregation had lost his fortune and, driven to despair, was about to sell his three daughters into slavery to pay off his debts. That night, the saint secretly entered their home and brought them gold, ransoming the girls from their fate. According to one version of the story, St. Nicholas left the gold in socks the girls had left hanging by the fire to dry – the origin of Christmas stockings. On the night of December 5, children across Europe sometimes leave out their shoes, awakening to find them miraculously filled with sweets.

St. Nicholas, who is called “the wonder-worker” for the innumerable miracles attributed to his intercession, is revered by all Christendom. He is the patron saint of Greece and Russia (and, once, the French Duchy of Lorraine). Perhaps because his See of Myra was a sailing port heavy with commerce, he is also the patron saint of merchants. (You can read more about his life here.)

This year, December 6 also marks a less auspicious event: Credit Day, the date when the average government in the European Union exceeds its tax revenues and begins deficit spending, or living on credit. December 6 is an improvement of six days over 2016, according to the Molinari Economic Institute (Institut  Économique Molinari, or IEM), which calculates the date annually.

The greatest deficit spender in the EU28 this year is France, which reached “credit day” on November 7. “France, one of the ‘big three,’ has not reduced public spending, with its public debt increasing to nearly 100 percent of GDP in 2016,” according to a briefing from the European Policy Information Center. EPICENTER noted that, although an outlier, the economic situation in France represents “a danger for the EU economy as a whole.”

How is that?

Economists agree that once debt reaches a certain percentage of GDP, it causes the nation’s economic growth to slow. That means less employment and opportunity for everyone, especially those already vulnerable. Michael Strain of AEI testified before Congress this year about the intimate connection between economic growth and human flourishing:

Economic growth drives increases in living standards and quality of life. This is perhaps most easy to see over long periods of time. Compare life two-hundred years ago with life today. Economic growth facilitated dramatic reductions in child mortality rates and poverty rates, increased access to education and medical care, increased lifespans, and the amenities of the modern world we enjoy today.

Cécile Philippe, director of IEM, said that “experience shows that lasting [deficits] are a source of risk for … future generations.”

Too many young Europeans are already shut out of permanent employment by poor economic policy, something Pope Francis has highlighted before EU leaders. In all, 16 nations exceed the EU’s maximum debt-to-GDP ratio of 60 percent.

Thankfully, most nations are moving in the right direction since the catastrophic recession of 2008. Four EU members enjoy a budget surplus. However, four other nations increased deficit levels over last year. The (U.S.) Congressional Budget Office noted in 2010, “There is no identifiable tipping point of debt relative to GDP indicating that a [financial] crisis is likely or imminent.” Catastrophe, the CBO warned, comes unexpectedly. If France, one of the three largest remaining economies, reaches this tipping point, young people across the EU could lose the opportunities for self-improvement they possess.

Economic policies that promote economic growth – such as lower taxes and a limited government that lives within its means – are a means of benefiting young people and the impoverished. The poor in economically free societies enjoy better longevity and quality of life than the rich in more statist nations. Spurring economic growth affords a greater number of people the ability to rise out of poverty and hopelessness. And it spares them being separated from their own families – the families they cannot afford to begin.

By embracing economic liberty and refusing to shackle their children with the consequences of unsustainable debt, Christians can still learn from the hagiography of St. Nicholas. It would be best not to wait until it takes a miracle to turn things around.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

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

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