A Christian Case for the Free Market
Being the English Text of an Address
Given to the Christian Democratic Political Council
in January 1992
by Sean Gabb
Economic and Political Adviser to the Prime Minister
Note: This is the English text of a speech that I made to the Slovak Christian Democratic Party in January 1992 about Christianity and free market economics. My claim was that “the laws of the Market are the laws of God”. It proved rather strong for a room full of European Christian Democrats. The questions arising took far longer than the speech; and though I won every debating point, I lost the argument. The Christian Democrats never did understand economics, and still do not.
There are many Christians who are unable to accept the case for free markets. They believe that economic freedom is incompatible with the fundamental moral teachings of Christianity. It causes people to lust after material abundance. And materialism, they believe, is to be condemned on three grounds.
The Case Against the Free Market
First, it is said to lead to unjust economic relationships. Regarding the inequalities of wealth to be seen in all free economies, see Christ’s injunction to the rich young man who wished to know how to gain salvation: “Sell all your goods and give the money to the poor”. See also: “It is easier for a camel to pass through he eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”; and “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst, for they shall be filled”.
Second, the economic rationality that is at the heart of all market relations is seen as sinful in itself. On financial prudence, see: “Behold the fowls of they air; they sow not neither do they reap, nor gather they into barns. But their heavenly father feeds them…. Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the things of the morrow shall take thought for themselves. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”
On all attention to financial matters, see: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon”. There is also the general principle, that only those things are good which have as their consequence the contemplation of God and His works. So far as materialism distracts people from that activity, it is considered bad.
Third, materialism is seen as bad not only in the negative sense, of distracting people from good. It is seen also as leading people into temptation. With the free market, it is believed, comes immoral personal conduct. Such conduct is condemned in both Old and New Testaments.
The Case for the Free Market
Yet, all this being said, it is not true that Christianity is incompatible with the free market. Indeed, for God’s work to be done on earth, the free market is absolutely essential. This is because when God made us, he made us free to choose good or evil by our own wish.
Of course, this is not a case for absolute individual freedom. Some controls will always be necessary – to prevent murder, for example; to prevent the poor, the sick and the old from starving; and so forth. But, these considerations aside, our actions are only good or evil – and therefore capable of punishment or reward – so far as they are freely chosen.
Thus, when Christ told the rich young man to sell his goods and give the money to the poor, he was not saying that the State should create a big welfare apparatus to redistribute income from one person to another. He was teaching us the goodness of voluntary charity. It was not by the mere transfer of wealth that the young man could gain salvation: it was also his own wish to make the transfer.
Indeed, compelled charity does more than rob monetary transfers of moral virtue; it also tends to destroy the charitable impulse itself. Why should people give to others, they ask, when already they have been forced to give by the State?
It is true that many passages in the New Testament – especially those in the Sermon on the Mount quoted above – seem to condemn all normal market behaviour. But, while the Bible must be considered the revealed perfect word of God, it must not always be taken literally. If it were to be taken literally, why have entire libraries been filled during the past 2000 years with commentaries on the Bible? Why has there been such disagreement between some of the most brilliant and devout Christians who have ever lived?
We know now that many passages in the Old Testament, regarding the natural sciences, cannot be taken literally. Every schoolboy knows today that the Earth is in orbit around the Sun. Yet, when Copernicus, the great Polish man of science, first announced this to be the case, he was denounced as a blasphemer. Against him was quoted the verse in Joshua describing how the Sun was stopped in its path around the Earth to enable the Israelites to win a battle before the evening.
Yet the major Christian churches – most notably the Roman Catholic – no longer claim that the natural sciences can be learned from the Bible. This is now considered a work primarily of moral and theological instruction. It is accepted that those passages dealing with scientific matters should be read as allegories, not as the literal truth. When we desire to exercise the dominion that God has given us over the Earth and its resources, we look to the natural sciences. This is not blasphemy. For centuries now, it has been held that the laws of science are the laws of God.
So it must be with those passages dealing with economic matters. The first duty of man is to gain salvation for himself and to assist others to gain salvation. We must therefore seek to create a stable political and economic environment in which we all have the greatest possible freedom to choose good and avoid evil.
That political and economic environment is the free market. We know this because the science of economics tells us so. And the laws of the market, no less than of the natural sciences, must be regarded as the laws of God. Any passages in the New Testament on economic matters must be understood in this light if they are to be understood properly.
The Achievements of the Free Market
Against the attempts of ignorant politicians to act in defiance of God’s economic laws, we have the repeated example of what can be achieved by relying on the ‘hidden hand’ of the market. Look at the history of Great Britain and the United States during the past 200 years. In Great Britain, between 1820 and 1910, when market forces were given their greatest freedom to act, living standards doubled and redoubled. The worst effects of poverty were abolished. All this happened while the population was rising from 15 million to 45 million – population growth on a scale that has brought other countries less well-governed – Bangladesh, for example, or Sub-Saharan Africa – to disaster.
This economic progress was not at the expense of Christian values. There was a huge growth of private charitable effort. Thousands of new churches were built. Hospitals and schools and orphanages were built and endowed. Charities were founded. The whole structure of modern charitable effort in Great Britain dates from the 19th century. The Royal Society for the Protection of Children, many charitable housing projects, many foreign aid projects – these have all been inherited from the last century.
The practical effect of this is that any truly Christian politician who wishes to raise the living standards of the poor must pay close attention to the laws of the market. If, for example, he wishes to ensure a large supply of good food at low prices, he must not try to control prices. For the known effect of price controls is to reduce the quantity of goods brought to market. That is one of the most elementary truths of economics; and millions have starved to death all through history when their rulers have tried to ignore it.
Again, it is another established truth that minimum wage laws create unemployment. They make it uneconomic to employ young people, women and the unskilled – people who are unable to produce enough to cover the cost of their artificially increased salaries.
In general, the most Christian approach to economic questions is to give the widest freedom to market forces – to allow God’s own laws of the market to establish a natural harmony between supply and demand.
© 1992 – 2017, seangabb.
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