Category: Economic Freedom

[Part 1 is here.]

Some might answer any defense of the free economy by pointing to the housing and financial crisis that came to a head in 2008, holding it up as proof positive the free economy is a wrecking ball swinging through communities and leaving all manner of economic and cultural destruction in its wake. The financial crisis did enormous damage, but the major drivers of the crisis were a series of public policies that manipulated the market in pursuit of certain desired ends.

It all began modestly enough. The federal government built incentives into the tax code in favor of taking out a home mortgage. Many local governments also provide property tax breaks to home owners unavailable to renters. While people who are forced by circumstances to rent might question the fairness of such tax breaks, these measures are seen by most as relatively benign. Eventually, however, other top-down manipulations of the housing market were piled on top of these tax breaks.

The U.S. government offered implicit backing to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac so that the companies understood that if they got into financial trouble, Washington would bail them out. This allowed Fannie and Freddie to offer low interest home loans to high risks borrowers, since the companies knew the government would come to their rescue if too many of these borrowers started defaulting on their loans.

The government also passed regulations that actually pushed mortgage companies, including Fannie and Freddie, to provide home loans to people with bad credit—subprime loans.

Finally, (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, details how the growth of government-corporate cronyism during the past 120 or so years has been largely a phenomenon of the socialist left. Wendell Berry misses this crucial historical insight in his running critique of capitalism, and his missing it draws him into flatly inaccurate claims, as when he asserts that “the United States government’s agricultural policy, or non-policy, since 1952 has merely consented to the farmer’s predicament of high costs and low prices; it has never envisioned or advocated in particular the prosperity of farmers or of farmland …”

This makes it sounds as if the government is largely uninvolved in agricultural markets, letting the winds of the free market blow wherever they wish. It’s true that the U.S. government has moved away from buying and destroying food as it did under FDR in the Great Depression, a statist attempt to prop up commodity prices while countless Americans went hungry. But even since 1952, and in a dizzying number of ways, the American government has been busy erecting all manner of protections for American agriculture, from fat subsidies on rice and other grains to import quotas on sugar, price supports on milk, and a long-running policy of paying farmers and ranchers to idle parts of their land. (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

In his case against capitalism, Wendell Berry argues that the average person not only is anxious because he depends upon so many other people for his wellbeing (truckers, utility companies, etc.) but that he ought to be anxious. There’s a grain of truth here. We shouldn’t become helpless sheep without a clue what to do were the power to go down for a couple of days in January. But inter-dependency, far from a sign of cultural sickness, is the mark of a healthy society, one where enough trust exists to allow for broadening circles of productivity and exchange, for markets that extend beyond clan and tribe. (more…)

[Part 1 is here].

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the ring leader of a little band of first-century Jewish rebels asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” He’s sure the answer is absolutely nothing, but one of the rebels meekly pipes up with “The Aqueduct.” A moment later another rebel squeaks, “And the sanitation.” Then another, “The Roads.”

"What have the Romans ever done for us!"

“What have the Romans ever done for us!”

The ringleader grudgingly grants all of this and then tries to wrench the meeting back on track. “But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads—” Before he can even finish the sentence, others–warming to the brainstorming challenge–begin chiming in: “Irrigation?” “Medicine?” “Education?”

The list could work just as well, and in some instances, more easily, for the British Empire. The scene also works as a metaphor for neo-agrarian essayist Wendell Berry and his relationship to capitalism and the U.S. Tobacco Trust that dominated the cigarette industry at the turn of the previous century.

Picture Berry gathering together a little knot of agrarian Distributist rebels on the back stoop of his Kentucky farm and rousing them with the purely rhetorical question, “What have the capitalists and big tobacco ever done for us?!”

The answer, I would suggest, is quite a bit. (more…)

Part 1 is here.]

An economically free society doesn’t have to be hyper-utilitarian, materialistic and banal; and yet, here we are, living in a capitalist age marked by these very features. Some social conservatives who see capitalism as one of the main culprits argue that we should turn away from both socialism and greedy capitalism, toward a more humanitarian and community-based approach, toward a small-is-beautiful aesthetic of farmer’s markets, widespread property ownership, social responsibility and local, collective enterprise, a political and economic strategy that would allow us to move beyond the noisy, vapid, bustling tackiness that has come to characterize so much of modern life.

The poet farmer and essayist Wendell Berry, and journalist and Crunchy Cons author Rod Dreher are among the more prominent contemporary defenders of this view. They build on the earlier work of writers such as E.F. Schumacher, Malcolm Muggeridge, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

Belloc, in particular, often regarded as the father of Distributism, advocated government policies that would divide productive property more equally and spur the economy toward more buy-local patterns and greater individual contact with the land. His Distributist vision called for an active, top-down approach to the reallocation process. Here’s how Belloc put it in his 1936 work “An Essay on the Restoration of Property”:

We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. the effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.

There are some problems with this vision of cultural renewal. (more…)

Writing for Canada’s National Post, Acton University lecturer Fr. Raymond de Souza calls our attention to the 25th anniversary this year of the defeat of communism and observes that “there are new questions about the unity of liberties.” In the 1980s, he writes, “when in the Gdansk shipyard the workers began to rattle the cage of communism, they demanded economic liberties (free trade unions), personal liberties (speech, the press), political liberties (democracy), legal liberties (against the police state) and religious liberty (the strikers insisted upon public worship in the shipyard itself).”

In continuity with older revolutions and even older political philosophy, he adds, “the liberties demanded were thought to be all of a piece. Liberty was not divisible, it was thought and often said. Today that question is is up for debate.”

For his National Post column, Fr. de Souza interviewed theologian Michael Novak — also lecturing at Acton U. in Grand Rapids, Mich., this week.

(more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

A common reading of Western history holds that the principles of the free economy grew out of the secular Enlightenment and had little to do with Christianity. This is mistaken. The free economy (and we can speak more broadly here of the free society) didn’t spring from the soil of the secular Enlightenment, much less, as some imagine, from a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog philosophy of life.

The free economy sprang from the soil of Christian Medieval Europe and the Renaissance, beginning in the monasteries and city states of Medieval northern Italy and spreading from there across Europe, taking particularly firm root among the Dutch and English.

Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and other secular Enlightenment thinkers propagated the myth of a so-called Dark Ages, an age of regression, religious superstition and irrationality. And some of my Protestant forebears happily seized upon this distorted characterization in the interest of discrediting Catholicism. (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

The free economy frees entrepreneurs to create new wealth for themselves and others, which brings us to the issue of consumption. In his book Crunchy Cons, conservative author Rod Dreher describes consumerism this way: “Consumerism fetishizes individual choice, and sees its expansion as unambiguous progress. A culture guided by consumerist values is one that welcomes technology without question and prizes efficiency…. A consumerist society encourages its members both to find and express their personal identity through the consumption of products.”

Dreher’s critique of consumerism is pointed, and many people, including many Christians, could benefit from hearing it. At the same time, though, Dreher’s description runs the risk of obscuring the crucial differences between consumerism and capitalism.

It’s true that capitalist economies are far better at wealth creation than socialist economies, which is why freer economies tend to have fewer people living in extreme poverty. But capitalism and consumerism—far from being necessarily joined at the hip—are not even compatible over the long term. A moment’s reflection suggests the reason. (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

Even a cursory look at the annual list of the freest and least free economies in the world suggests a strong correlation between economic freedom and the prosperity of its citizens, including its poorest citizens. But there’s another correlation that tends to capture the attention of those making a cultural critique of the free economy. They note that America is economically free, and that it’s experiencing cultural decay, so they conclude the first causes the second. The conclusion isn’t absurd, but it also doesn’t follow necessarily. Sometimes correlation is due to causation, and sometimes it isn’t. To avoid confusion and false conclusions, we need to distinguish the idea of economic freedom from some things it isn’t.

A lot of people view economic freedom as synonymous with big corporations cutting sweetheart deals with politicians to suppress competitors and consumer choice. This stuff goes on all the time, of course, but it isn’t economic freedom. It’s the leviathan state and big business colluding to manipulate the market, to stack the deck in favor of political insiders. Every market economy on the planet has some of this sort of thing, since economies are operated by fallen human beings. The question is, where does cronyism tend to be the worst? (more…)

[Part 1 of 12 here]

In the 1950s and ‘60s, blacks were winning the civil rights they should have had all along, but in the midst of this positive trend, increasingly aggressive minimum wage regulations and extensive welfare programs were beginning to displace a comparatively free market of labor and private charity. The communities flooded with this state-sponsored mode of redistributive justice now face far higher levels injustice in the form of unpunished crimes and community breakdown than before the redistributive justice arrived.

So, for instance, (more…)