A Christian call for free enterprise

Arthur Brooks recently 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 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. The Proverbs illustrate how the borrower is servant to the lender, 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 than able-bodied individuals, 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.

What Do You Think?

  • Do you see free enterprise as the most Christian approach to solving America's current financial predicament?
  • What dangers might exist with this method?
  • Are there alternative models Christians should consider?


Comments (10)

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Brooks is correct in seeking to offer a defense of capitalism, but there is little about his methods I admire. The problem arises because he is reactionary in his stance, hoping to respond to a plurality of Americans who believe that capitalism is at odds with Christian values (cf. http://publicreligion.org/research/2011/04/plurality-of-americans-believe-capitalism-at-odds-with-christian-values/ ). As a result Brooks falsely suggests that there is a “fundamental choice” between “[continuing]] our current public spending binge, where 42 cents of every dollar the federal government spends is borrowed” and “[unleashing] a new wave of free enterprise”. Of course, whether or not we follow pro-business policies is only partly related to public deficit spending vis-a-vis taxation, while there are in fact many other issues at play.

The task worth doing is not offering an apology for capitalism (in the sense of “defense of”), but rather seeking to address those concerns with the system that lead the plurality of Americans to view it as immoral. Doing so means, e.g., addressing structural and systematic issues related to practical limits on opportunity rather than, e.g., dwelling on a 14% salary premium for federal workers that largely disappears or becomes negative for the highest paid workers and, together with benefits and job security, represents only a roughly 2% savings to the Federal budget (cf.  http://www.aei.org/files/2011/06/08/AEI-Working-Paper-on-Federal-Pay-May-2011.pdf ).

Ultimately we should reject the idea that we must choose government or the market. Both have a role and we must ask how each best fulfill that role together with the other institutions of society.


There is no need for a “Christian call for free enterprise.” Christians are already inextricably, and shamefully, linked to far too many of the abuses of free enterprise already. (Is this another Acton Institute piece in disguise?)

Which is not to excuse this trampling through Scripture in defense of a economic theory. What able-minded person actually believes that a snippet from Proverbs and a one-liner from Paul suggest divine approval of capitalism?

What is here called the “welfare state,” which elsewhere is called “good society,” has provided significant and far-reaching benefits in education, health, and opportunity for as long as anybody alive can remember. Marilynne Robinson goes about this point in great and poetic detail in several essays from her most recent book, ‘When I was a Child I Read Books.’

I would think that a person who is the head of a well-known conservative think tank may not be in a neutral position when it comes to economic prescriptions. Indeed, one might even come to think that he is actually advocating policies that benefit certain constituencies (oh! the horror!). It is not surprising that Mr Good should like Mr Brooks either, given the common circles they both swim in.

Two issues intertwine here: there are the economic theory/practice questions. (Does Brooks have his economics right?) Secondly there is a set of Christian moral reflections, with lots of folks writing on the subject. For now, I will take my social democracy, thank you, and like Christian Bell, call that a good society.

there are plenty of folks to choose from.

Thanks for commenting William. This piece wasn’t intended to offer a neutral position. We’re hoping to have a conversation about Christian views of free enterprise, and such conversations often start by staking out a position.

To that end, who are some of the “plenty of folks to choose from” you would suggest when it comes to alternative models? That’s the sort of alternative perspective we’d like to add to the discussion.

Josh Larsen,
TC editor

I think the interaction between ethics and economics haunts Christians so much because it is precisely the point at which “being in the world and yet not of the world” grows some teeth. It is also the one place where the doctrines of human sinfulness most visibly show their teeth—among those that society would not necessarily even judge, but which the biblical standards of equity in the divine image would.

Basically, as I see it, capitalism and the free market work because of human sin…greed and acquisitiveness function inextricably in how the free market works. Christians are right to balk at this. Were there no sin nature, the free market would inevitably fail. Period.

But alternatives, such as socialism, also fail…again, because of human sinfulness. The capitalist apologies I have found most persuasive, for my own two cents, are those that argue along the lines that capitalism at least spreads the evil around a bit, instead of concentrating it in the hands of a very powerful few.

But, being a member of the middle class, I also know that I am inextricably biased myself. So the cycle begins again.

The only economy that will ever be truly biblical is a benevolent theocracy…the kind envisioned in the book of Revelation after the new heavens and the new earth have come.

The notion that capitalism is predicated on greed would have been foreign to its early champions. Smith et al. spoke, rather, of “self interest” of which greed was a perversion, one which destroys the viability of any capitalist system.

Whether or not the capitalist system would fail without sin is a bit moot, since notions of economics in a garden of abundance in which toil is absent are rather different than those of the world in which we live. For this reason I think we would do well to not reject this “season of God’s patience” as incapable of responding to biblical norms. No, it will neither be creation nor eschaton, but it need not be removed from biblical guidance.

In the same way, I think it is false to suggest that only in the new earth is a biblical government possible. Clearly we operate imperfectly, but there are norms that can find expression in the world now.


When I tossed off the line that there were plenty of people to choose from, I was simply thinking of the long reflection on the issues of wealth and society in Christian theology. E.g. the medieval church was death on usury, today we’re oblivious to it. Or if you were to look at Christian business men of another era, you would find interesting approaches; a good place to start would be with JP and Max DePree of Herman Miller, who not only shared profits through the Scanlon plan but also capped CEO salary of 33x the base salary—a cap that was in place until early 80s. Max has written some interesting stuff on the conduct of business. For them, profit maximization was not the point.

And on that point we should also note how in the Dutch culture the habits of thrift and modesty were considered normative. Example: the billionaire Meijers lived in a rather modest ranch in the city.

In short, we cannot talk about the question of free enterprise without considering the status of wealth. And as noted, Christian businessmen have wrestled with this, and generally integrated it into a more social framework than the current individualistic one manifested by Josh Good.

As to Mr. Good being non-neutral. Of course he is. Quoting from documents from the Heritage Foundation as a source of proof simply invites dismissal. (Case: he cites a 61 percent differential between public and private sectors; the figure is more complicated as the 2012 CBO study indicates—the number is 17%). But rather than totally dismiss his argument, I will instead point to two areas left untouched: nothing is said of the social responsibilities of the wealthy or of the spiritual danger wealth poses. One simply cannot read Scripture without learning that wealth not only brings blessing but also can easily twist us into harming others. We cannot talk about free enterprise and the poor by talking about the moral duties of the poor.

Secondly, on a policy point, it would have been highly useful had Mr. Good come clean on his view of taxation. At present the plans from conservatives deny taxation with the result that they can only generate extraordinary cuts to social programs, as </a href=“http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/rand-paul-republicans-have-compromised-enough/2012/06/07/gJQAEFnxLV_blog.html”>Ezra Klein pointed out</a> today in a discussion of Sen Rand Paul’s plan.

One of the great lies of the past 50 years has been equating “free enterprise” with labor.

“Free enterprise” suggests that some people *shouldn’t* have to work for their bread—that the holders of capital can have people work *for* them, pay those workers less than the value they’re providing, and keep the excess for themselves.

If “earned success” means work, did Mitt Romney, who made $20,900,000 in 2011, truly work 423x as hard as the median household did for $49,445? Was Romney’s money truly 423x as valuable to society in 2011 as the actual labor of “overpaid” public workers like teachers, firefighters, or cops?

Let’s acknowledge that most government spending, even on things like Medicare, ultimately goes to *workers* either in the conservatives’ vaunted “private sector” or in the public sector (earning less than their skills/education would fetch in private employment). Government spending goes to people who provide value to our society.

Reducing government spending to promote “free enterprise,” where holders of capital profit from others’ labor, is the *opposite* of everyone laboring to earn their bread.

You will take your social democracy?  Would you take Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Portugal?  They are social democracies as I understand them.  If you would take them, put your money where your mouth is and buy some sovereign debt.  But kiss your money goodbye first, because social democracy is driving those countries bankrupt.

Just got done reading Gary North’s economic commentary on the 5th commandment.  His commentary is available for free here:

In brief, the 5th commandment does not leave room for a messianic welfare state.  Instead, it recognizes the transfer of wealth between generations and highlights the responsibility families have to care for each other.  The messianic welfare state disrupts this God-sanctioned system to capture the wealth for itself.  In return, it attempts to displace the family by promising to care for the young and elderly.  Unfortunately, the welfare state can only destroy wealth, not create it.  So in the end, not only is the family wealth destroyed, the welfare state itself is destroyed.

Turns out Europe isn’t just facing the consequences of bad economic planning, it’s facing the judgment of God.

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