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The uncertain future for free markets in America

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A week ago I participated in a panel for the Philadelphia Society on “Conservatism and the Coming Economy.” During the Q&A, I was asked about the future of economic freedom specifically regarding our two major political parties. I had briefly touched on this in my remarks, and though I noted that current trends do not look good, I believe that support for liberty requires the virtue of hope.

First, the current trend:

On the one hand, while President Trump is known for his protectionist policies, things aren’t (yet) as bad as they could be. As I noted in my remarks: “In fact, since President Trump’s election in 2016, the United States has actually improved its ratings in both the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World report and the Heritage/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom.” However, the good news ends there: “when we look at specific metrics, we can see that while things like ‘business freedom’ have improved, ‘trade freedom’ and ‘fiscal health’ are on the decline.”

There is a more worrying aspect to this, to me, as well: Even though we have seen significant deregulation and the reduction of the corporate tax under President Trump, his economic rhetoric focuses almost entirely on his protectionist stances regarding trade deficits (which aren’t actually bad), tariffs (which are actually bad), and subsidies for domestic manufacturers (also bad). So even if economic freedom as a whole does not decline in the United States in the short-run, the strength of the economy may be misattributed to protectionist policies, opening the door to future economic error that could start to hurt the economy and restrict economic freedom in more tangible ways.

We can see this when we look to the Democrats. The top three candidates, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and former Vice President Joe Biden aren’t really any more in favor of free trade than Trump, and all of them would increase taxes and regulations domestically. Biden and Warren talk about restoring trade relationships, but they add so many conditions — like requiring representatives of labor unions to have a say in any trade negotiations — that even if tariffs were reduced, other conditions on trade might equal or outweigh the benefit.

So to put it simply, current trends among both Republicans and Democrats do not look good for free markets.

Secondly, on the other hand, there is reason for hope.

In my answer to the question, I began by saying that I don’t believe anything is inevitable. I am not a determinist, nor should any Christian be. God made human beings with freedom, a freedom even he does not violate. As the second-century Christian Epistle to Diognetus put it, God “willed to save man by persuasion, not by compulsion, for compulsion is not God’s way of working.” Why? God made us rational beings, and salvation requires the healing of our natures, not their violation. As the second-century apologist St. Athenagoras of Athens wrote, “For nothing that is endowed with reason and judgment has been created, or is created, for the use of another, whether greater or less than itself, but for the sake of the life and continuance of the being itself so created.” And, to tie the two together, the Church father St. John of Damascus wrote, “For either man is an irrational being, or, if he is rational, he is master of his acts and endowed with free-will.”

How does this relate to American politics and our economic future? Well, to reiterate, Christians should not be determinists. As I wrote in my book, “To be human means that we are made in the image of God as free, rational animals….” This is the basis of my affirmation of the good of economic liberty, but it is also the basis of my hope for the future. Of course, God knows the future, but he knows things according to their natures. He knows free acts as free, not as the necessary result of any equation. We get to make real choices in this life. That is scary at times, but it is also hopeful: We each have a contribution to make, and from our vantage point, at least, the future is uncertain. And if uncertain, then the trends of today need not determine tomorrow. There is always reason for hope.

So regardless of the political trends of the day, I remain cautiously hopeful for tomorrow. I believe that free economies are best-suited to human flourishing, and I believe that truth is powerful and worth defending. Who knows? Maybe because I spoke on a panel or wrote a blog post, the current trends may start to reverse. While I don’t have any illusions of my own grandeur, I nevertheless believe that the future is open and every contribution matters. Even mine. Even yours.


Image credit: “A Free Trade Forecast,” Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Wikimedia Commons

More from Acton

For more on the morality of free trade, check out this Acton Line episode in which former Foundation Relations Coordinator Tyler Groenendal interviews Michael J. Clark, Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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