Acton Institute Powerblog

David French’s Christian vision for economic freedom

Given the recent wave of populism and protectionism sweeping across the American Right, we see increased criticism of free markets among conservatives – complete with lengthy debates about the purpose of the nation-state, the role of the market in civil society, and whether classical liberalism has any enduring value in an age of technological disruption and globalization.

Meanwhile, the Left continues its critiques as it always has, leading to a peculiar alliance against capitalism among otherwise ideological foes. Each side is surely distinct in its cultural priorities and desired outcomes, and yet each increasingly frames economic freedom as a mostly disruptive and dehumanizing force. Each points to the same lists of enemies (CEOs, tech companies, innovators, “profit maximizers”), and each points to the same supposed solutions (tariffs, subsidies, price controls, redistribution).

In such an environment, it can be difficult to discern what a conservative, “traditionalist” argument for economic freedom looks like – one that puts human dignity and the common good firmly at the center. As Christians, it offers a unique opportunity to explain how such freedom aligns with our particular vision of human personhood, human community, and human flourishing.

In a recent episode of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture’s For the Life of the World podcast, David French explores these issues in an interview with theologian Miroslav Volf.

“There are no effective replacements for capitalism,” Volf states. “The question is, ‘What is the Christian responsibility for the proper function of it, and to what extent can we steer the whole of capitalist production to serve genuinely human ends, as they are articulated by the Christian faith?’”

Given our current cultural climate, Volf provides a clarifying contrast, offering critiques of capitalism that mirror many of those on both the Christian Left and populist Right alike. Volf is openly skeptical about what he calls “Reagan’s attempted marriage between free-market economy and conservative values,” noting that, as a European, he has always seen this as a union destined for “divorce.”

“The free market is a culture-creating institution, which is to say also a culture-dissolving institution,” Volf argues. “You can have a Marxist version of [this idea], but you can have other versions of this idea – that it eats away at all kinds of values that are incompatible with its functioning, and the main value that it seeks to achieve is profit maximization.”

French responds at length to this and other such critiques, reminding Volf that the drivers of a free market are not as contradictory to “Christian values” as Volf suspects. In turn, French promotes a fusion of classical liberalism, free-market capitalism, and Christian virtue – one that operates somewhere outside the paradigm set by populists and progressives.

To distill that vision, I have organized some of French’s key responses below, each of which may prove helpful as we continue to articulate the moral good of economic freedom through a Christian lens.

On classical liberalism as a path to “ordered liberty”:

I think of small-l liberalism and capitalism in some similar ways. For example, in our constitutional structure, it depends on reciprocating obligations. You have, on the one hand, the statement of the obligations of the state as outlined in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence … which is a big, sweeping sort of mission statement … operationalized by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

But, as John Adams said … this Constitution would make America an unfit habitation … unless there was a corresponding set of obligations from the citizens. … He said, “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” That, in a nutshell, is the concept of ordered liberty. You are free. You have liberty. But the focus of my obligations and my exercise of that liberty is to exercise liberty toward virtuous ends.

On virtuous capitalism as crucial to maintaining the “social fabric”:

In the absence of cultural virtue, in the absence of a virtue in citizenry, a dog-eat-dog capitalism can be a miserable place. A dog-eat-dog capitalist culture can be a miserable place in the absence of the leaven and influence of a population that exhibits the cardinal virtues. …

When that kind of social compact is broken, you will see the fallout … and there will be consequences. And one of the things we end up doing is saying, “Well, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with classical liberalism,” or, “There’s something fundamentally wrong with economic freedom,” and forgetting these sorts of reciprocal obligations. …

The evangelical Protestant in me is often very focused on the concept of religious revival, very focused on the concept of a Great Awakening and the restoration of faith as a central part in the human experience as the thing that is going to do far more than this tweak or that tweak of the economic system to knit back together again our social fabric.

On whether capitalism destroys culture and religious community:

Every economic system has culture-creating and culture-dissolving elements. Every one of them … All of these economic systems have trade-offs.

But what I dispute with some of my nationalist conservative friends is this … sense that creating a European-style economy – one that is more dedicated to central planning, for example, one that is more dedicated to a larger and more expansive social safety net – is going to bolster the life and health of the Christian church in the United States of America. If we’re looking at Europe, is that an argument for how you bolster the health and life of a Christian church? We’re talking about a culture that is fairly described in many ways as post-Christian. The United States has a far larger and far more vibrant Christian community than these much more centrally planned economies of Western Europe.

As I look at this, I say, “What is incompatible with what here?” If you’re going to argue that a greater degree of central planning is going to support the life and health and the church, I’m not convinced by that.

On whether modern capitalism is dehumanizing and needs to somehow be “tamed”:

Some of the critics of capitalism are unfair in that they neglect the ways that capitalism connects with deep virtues. We have seen the power of fundamentally capitalist structures to really bring much of the world out of the extreme poverty that it has struggled with for so many millennia. We have seen the fruit of capitalism – that it connects with human beings in a multifaceted way. I feel like a lot of the critics of capitalism focus on flaws, because it’s an imperfect system. Every human system is going to be imperfect! But they minimize the ways [capitalism] connects with some elements of humanity that are virtuous and quite powerful.

Here’s one of them: hope. One of the things about capitalism and economic opportunity, is that it brings a person … a fundamental, element of hope in their lives. I can improve my lot in life. I can do better. I can provide for a family. I can be elevated and lifted out of this grinding poverty. It connects very deeply. This is hope, and it connects with industry and hard work. …

And I think a properly functioning capitalist system also connects with a sense of equity and justice. You are entitled to the sweat of your brow. You are entitled to the fruits of your labor.

On the Christian’s moral and civic responsibility in a capitalistic system:

The answer is to turn back to the reciprocal responsibilities. We cannot look to a top-down governmental reform of the system to repair all that ails us. We also have to look at a bottom-up cultural response to the system. The two have to exist together.

That’s why I talk so much about the need for a healthy church in our culture and in our community. One of the fundamental enterprises of any American Christian right now isn’t just to look at the government and say, “Do better.” It’s to look at ourselves as a Christian church, and say we have to do better. We have to be salt and light in this system …

When it comes to the top-down elements, I think we have to be guided by some particular basic principles. One is to preserve economic opportunity as much as we possibly can, up and down the economic ladder of the United States, paying particular attention to those who have the least resources. What is it we can do that can provide them with a greater sense of hope and expectation of opportunity? … What can we do to be as equitable as possible in the sense that someone is entitled to the fruits of their labor, the extent to which exploitation drains confidence in the system and drains hope from the human person.

We also have to learn from the past. We have to have an economic memory. One of the things that bothers me about our current debate about American capitalism and industrial policy is that we often act as if we haven’t had these discussion for 40 or 50 years and haven’t tried various things, and that they haven’t had certain records of success or failure … We’ll talk about things like tariffs or talk about trade restrictions or talk about industrial policy or worker reeducation. … But we have a lot of experience with trying a lot of different things, and what can we learn from that?

Listen to the full interview here.

Upcoming Event

Divided we fall: America after the 2020 election

November 5, 2020 | 12 Noon | Online

In his new book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, senior editor at The Dispatch David French surveys the landscape of a politically and culturally polarized America, examining the true dimensions and dangers of this widening ideological gap. Just two days after the 2020 election, French will address the impacts the election outcomes (to the extent that they are known) will have on an increasingly divided and tribalistic nation, with each faction believing their distinct cultures and liberties are being threatened by an escalating violent opposition.

To what extent could not only the nation but the world be destabilized if the cultural and political divide in America worsens? How can the Americans come to embrace the values of kindness, decency, and grace towards those we disagree with ideologically in a time when the opposite is more often rewarded? How important is faith in an increasingly secular world to overcoming our polarized society? French will address these questions in more in this exclusive post-election conversation.

This lecture is livestream only. A free livestream of this lecture will be available to view @ 12 noon Eastern on November 5.

(Photo: Screenshot from David French and Sohrab Ahmari debate, Catholic University of America.)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.