Dodge: Capitalism and Freedom

By Kevin Dodge (email)

When I was in college, I had great fun needling one of my economics professors. An avowed socialist who believed in centralized industrial planning, I took it upon myself to press him frequently on how government economic planning didn’t work. I especially enraged him one day when I suggested that taxation was immoral and we should be funding our government with lotteries instead. He spent the rest of the class passionately unravelling my argument.

Even if I still don’t agree with my professor, I’m embarrassed by my arrogance. I was just feeding my professor the arguments of the libertarian economist Milton Friedman to upset him.

Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is a sacred text for today’s free-market libertarians. To Friedman, freedom is the lack of interference from the government. Classical liberalism teaches that the government should stay out of our business since markets left to themselves produce superior results.

While it is true that markets allocate resources efficiently, this does not mean the outcome is always the right one for the society or the common good. As the economic historian Richard Grossman has pointed out, most of the worst economic policy mistakes have occurred because of a blind commitment to a particular ideology. One example is the Irish famine from 1845-1852 which killed about 12% of the Irish population. A commitment to unfettered free markets caused Whig politicians in England to refuse to intervene even as the people were starving. Millions lost their lives as a result.

Thinking as a Christian, the libertarian conception of freedom is flawed. Why? Classical liberalism defines freedom in negative terms – as the absence of restraint. Yet a society cannot have true freedom without its proper end in mind, which is God. Like it or not, God restrains us. In fact, freedom without restraint tends to devolve into raw exercises of power. We observe this most clearly our politics today which seems to care greatly about power, but less about the common good.

In the Bible, we observe an example of this with the Israelites. God freed Israel from slavery, yet some desired to return to Egypt to fulfill their cravings. They said, “O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons the leeks, the onions and the garlic” (Num 11.4-5).

They ate for free? These Israelites apparently forgot that they were slaves in Egypt. How quickly we become prone to surrendering our freedom for some mythical notion of safety or prosperity.

To be clear, free enterprise is very good. No other system has lifted more people out of poverty and has offered incentives for innovations that enable us to flourish. Yet we always have to ask whether our choices are serving the end for which we were made.

Jesus was very clear about our ultimate end: love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12.30-31). Love is the only thing that will truly make you free.

Categories: Between Sundays