The Fraser Institute has released the tenth edition of their annual report on economic freedom in North America. The report considers how such factors as size of government, takings and discriminatory taxation, and labor market freedom affect people’s freedom to choose how to produce, sell, and use their own resources, while respecting others’ rights to do the same. Read the report below to see where your state ranks.
LBJ’s so-called “war on poverty” kicked off a trajectory of public policy that has shown a remarkable tendency to create more of the same — affirming cycles of dependency, disintegrating relational capital, and over-elevating material tinkering to the detriment of the permanent things.
Yet somehow the prevailing narrative still holds that those same sickly policies are the best we can hope for, and anyone who disagrees is an enemy of the poor. If money shall be transferred from Person X to Person Y and the label on the packaging reads “anti-poverty!”, what else is there to discuss?
In a recent interview with Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts assumes the common prejudice (4:11):
Roberts begins by pointing to a series of progressive measures that Scott has opposed in the past, proceeding to ask, quite presumptuously, “How do you respond to that, if your true concern is about lower income families and kids?” One can only be concerned for the poor if they subscribe to the very policies that have failed them, apparently. (more…)
[Part 1 is here.]
That most colossal blunder of Marxist experiments, the Soviet Union, collapsed more than twenty years ago, and yet Marxist thinking still penetrates the warp and woof of contemporary culture, so much so that it’s easy even for avowedly anti-Marxist conservatives to think from within the box of Marxism when considering the problem of cultural decay. Breaking out of that box means emphasizing but also stretching beyond such factors as insider cronyism, class envy, and the debilitating effects of the welfare state.
So, for instance, the influential 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau rejected the doctrines of the trinity, the deity of Christ, miracles, and the idea of original sin, writing that at one point as a young man he suddenly felt very strongly “that man is naturally good” and that it was only from the institutions of civilization “that men become wicked.” Rousseau’s view has had enormous cultural consequences, giving credence to the perennial human impulse to do whatever feels natural, never mind how stupid or destructive.
The English writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple put it this way in an interview he gave for The Truth Project: (more…)
[Part 1 is here.]
Economic freedom does generate certain challenges. The wealth that free economies are so effective at creating brings with it temptation. Wealth can tempt us to depend on our riches rather than on God. The temptation can be resisted, as we see with wealthy biblical characters like Abraham and Job. But it’s a challenge the church should be mindful of, helping its members cultivate a balanced view of money and of our responsibility and opportunities as stewards of the things God has given us.
The free society also can be hard on communities, since the free enterprise system makes for such a mobile society. Michael Miller talks about this: the opportunities and demands generated by a complex market economy mean that people often end up moving far away from their childhood homes and the network of relationships that surrounded that home. In seeking to meet this challenge, we need to ask ourselves what strategies would effectively address the problem, and are there well-intended policies that are likely to make the problem worse. In essence, we need to exercise the virtue of prudence.
The sociologist Robert Nisbet has some useful insights here. In his 1953 work The Quest for Community, he developed the case that greater centralized political authority and social safety net spending beyond a certain minimal level actually begin to undermine civil institutions and community, since people depend less and less on their family and community bonds and more and more on state-sponsored humanitarian assistance.
[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.”
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…)
[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…)