May 25, 2012
By Josh Good
This week Arthur Brooks made the New York Times bestseller list with his new book The Road to Freedom, which argues that America today faces a fundamental choice: Will we continue our current public spending binge, where 42 cents of every dollar the federal government spends is borrowed, or will we change course and instead unleash a new wave of free enterprise?
The book makes a strong case for the latter, defending capitalism on pragmatic grounds but even more fundamentally as the system best-suited to overall human happiness and societal well-being. Brooks is an economist firmly committed to the social sciences, and yet this book makes a fundamentally moral case: A free economy best promotes the dignity of individual workmanship by allowing human beings to discover unique God-given calling and to experience the blessing of “earned success.”
Brooks wants to “win over our hearts” in the book, so he winsomely combines stories and statistics. Referencing studies from the eminent psychologist Martin Seligman, he illustrates how the provision of makeshift work and unearned benefits inevitably lead to “learned helplessness.” Moreover, he says, it is immoral to annually borrow huge quantities from future generations to fund the current promises of politicians—and it is unethical to pay federal workers 61 percent more than their private-sector counterparts. Recent abuses of our welfare state and the loose government contracting practices described in a compelling Time Magazine story this week underscore this point.
Provocative arguments, these. What are Christians to think of such claims?
A few principles. First, we should evaluate Brooks’ compelling arguments alongside other Christian scholarship that addresses enduring matters of economic and political order. For example, the Center for Public Justice Guidelines on Economic Justice and Welfare keep helpful norms in view: government regulation should maintain “a just legal framework” in order for the market to function, and a public safety net properly exists “in coordination with family, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.” Like Brooks’ claims, these guidelines affirm a limited but important role for government, as well as the inherent dignity of human persons—while delineating the important perspective of holistic justice in the context of the many relationships, responsibilities, and institutions that make civil society communities flourish.
Second, Christians should be attentive to specific biblical injunctions about the rule of law, borrowing, compassion and work. The Scriptures teach that life in accordance with God’s laws yields productivity and generosity, so our government should uphold the law and punish wrongdoing (Romans 13:4). The Proverbs illustrate how the borrower is servant to the lender (Prov. 22:7), so we should be very mindful about excessive national debt. And the New Testament teaches that orphans and widows deserve a different kind of support (James 1:27) than able-bodied individuals (2 Thess. 3:10), who Paul lovingly says “should not eat” if they reject available work.
In short, the Scriptures consistently honor the dignity of work and teach that context should always affect aid. This makes the principle of subsidiarity—which in Catholic social teaching has typically meant preferring local solutions to distant, bureaucratic programs—an important norm. Similarly, the doctrine of human sinfulness should caution us against enacting sweeping policies that all-too-easily lead to unintended consequences. The state’s goal should be to uphold justice in the marketplace and provide for the poor without fostering dependency.
Finally, differing points of view on fundamental questions about free enterprise and government’s role in society also require Christians to engage in “respectful conversation,” recalling that in a consequential presidential election year like this one, the way we engage can be as important as our message. Authentic dialogue goes beyond the mere rehearsal of previously held commitments. Listening should not be confused with simply “waiting your turn to speak.”
The conversation Arthur Brooks has launched is worth having, since real national sacrifice—in one way or another—lies ahead. For Christians especially, we should engage the debate over the moral nature of free enterprise in a manner that forges national agreement.
—Josh Good consults with several Washington, D.C.-based think tanks and currently serves as executive director of Christians for a Sustainable Economy