Acton Institute Powerblog

The ‘chicken and egg’ interplay of religious liberty and economic freedom

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Does one come before the other – or are religion and the ability to practice religion freely and openly mutual and indivisible? […]

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The contributions of religious life to economic prosperity are increasingly evident, prompting many to study the relationship between the two. A recent study from Canada found that religion adds billions to the economy. In the United States, research has shown much of the same, pointing to growth that outsizes that of the world’s leading companies.

What’s less explored are connections between the underlying freedoms themselves, which many believe to be mutually reinforcing and indivisible.

“Both economic and religious freedom tend to exist together in the same societies,” writes Jay Richards in Acton’s collection of essays, “One and Indivisible.” “They are both based on the same principles; they tend to reinforce each other; and over the long haul, they arguably stand or fall together. As a result, when Catholics and other Christians surrender economic freedom, they unwittingly surrender their religious freedom, as well.

In a new research paper, “Religious, Civil, and Economic Freedoms: What’s the Chicken and What’s the Egg?”, Christos Makridis of Stanford University goes a bit further down this path, exploring “whether religious freedom is the driver of economic freedom – or whether it is the other way around.”

The paper begins with an overview of the research thus far, detailing a growing scientific consensus about the contributive role of religious liberty in human flourishing. In one of his own studies, for example, Makridis assessed relevant data from 150 countries, concluding that “increases in religious freedom are associated with robust increases in measures of human flourishing,” with specific gains in the realm of civil liberties – empowerment of women, freedom of expression, and more.

But what about its connection to economic freedom, specifically?

To answer the question, Makridis compares a mix of data and rankings from sources such as the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), World Bank, and Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom, while controlling for various country- or culture-specific characteristics.

His conclusion? Religious liberty appears to be more the “egg” than the “chicken.”

“The results suggest that religious liberty is not only a much stronger predictor of economic freedom than the other way around,” Makridis writes, “but also that lagged increases in economic freedom do not show up as increases in religious freedom, but they do the other way around. Furthermore, this paper provides new evidence on the spillover benefits of religious liberty on other behavior in society and the public sector.”

Those “spillover benefits” are significant, pointing to the interplay not just between religious liberty and economic freedom, but between and across a range of other contributors to “institutional health” (e.g., civil liberties). Taken together, it illuminates the general direction of causality, with religious liberty at the front end; but, given the questions that remain, it mostly serves to affirm the interconnectedness of individual rights of every stripe.

“Put in perspective, the effects of religious liberty are greatest for civil liberties, freedom of expression, and freedom from physical violence,” Makridis said. “This is important since these three characteristics are routinely viewed as necessary (but not sufficient) determinants of the exchange of goods and services. For example, with the threat of violence and expropriation, even formal designations of property rights are meaningless since the safety of the owner is in question.”

Some may be surprised by the confidence of Makridis’ conclusion. Based on previous research, property rights seemed to be somewhat predictive of religious freedom. On this, Makridis points out that, despite a “robust correlation,” we’ve seen “a substantial decline in religious liberty over the past decade concentrated among countries with stronger property rights.” In each case that he studied, “there is no evidence that the countries with stronger property rights also exhibited greater growth in religious liberty.”

Given the ongoing turbulence of the global situation, and the drastic declines in religious liberty we’ve seen over just the past 10 years, we should hesitate to see Makridis’ conclusion as definitive. He himself acknowledges there are many questions left to be asked, and the fruits of the latest global trends are yet to be fully seen. One wonders, for example, if economic freedom still does have a strong casual role to play in such matters, depending on how it is imagined or embraced in a particular culture or country.

Given the “mutually reinforcing” relationship of the two, one also wonders if “chicken and egg” analysis is the best path to uncovering the mysteries in the first place. And yet, in a certain respect, such findings may help to explain the extent to which religious freedom is, as many say, our “first freedom.”

As Michael Novak explains in “One and Indivisible:

“Religious liberty is a natural right. Indeed, it is the first and most fundamental of natural rights from which all others spring. The American founders recognized that once a person recognizes the full meaning of creature and Creator, he recognizes as self-evident the duty in conscience of the former to the latter. He recognizes as well that this duty is inalienable. For Christians at least, such a ground for religious liberty means that the right of conscience extends to all persons, even to those who have not yet seen evidence for recognizing a Creator.

“Economic liberty, as we have seen, is indispensable for allowing human persons to fulfill the creative impulse in our nature, felt even by those who do not admit that we are made in the image of the Creator of all things. The historical evidence is clear and inarguable. Systems that respect and promote economic liberty are far more creative, habitually inventive, and self-improving. Best of all, they produce the best results, both for individual persons and for the common good.”

In such a way, religious liberty and economic freedom are intimately related. Religious liberty is deeper and more basic, and gives a more granite grounding to all other freedoms. And as studies such as Makridis’ affirm, the fight to preserve it is essential to the fight for all else.

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, 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.