Who Can Be Trusted With Freedom of Choice?

by Nov 3, 2015

Christianity has always asserted that people are sinners. This does not mean that people are as bad or evil as they could possibly be, but that every aspect of their being is tainted by sin. As such, human action is always flawed in this world. Unrighteousness and injustice often mark our way. We abuse the freedom of choice that God has given and thus pursue vain desires to negative ends. So, who can be trusted with freedom of choice?

Fortunately, Christianity does not stop with this bad news. There is good news for sinful humanity. That news is that Jesus conquered sin and death. Thus God has been gracious to mankind in a way that provides freedom from sin and death. This grace opens the door of opportunity so that human beings can use the freedom of choice to do good rather than bad. The transformation of one’s life is accomplished as a person lives out his life in the world of free choice. In addition, saving grace spills over into common grace whereby even those opposed to God may do the right things for the wrong reasons. While perfect goodness will be lacking, better circumstances can prevail as the gospel message penetrates a society.

In his essay on the nature of true virtue, Jonathan Edwards argued that the essence of virtue rests in the love of being. Another way to put the matter is that virtue is a matter of loving our own existence to the point that we love the existence of everyone else. When carried to its logical conclusion such love begins with the love of God who is the ultimate Being and then to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus argued that if we loved him, we would keep his commandments, which would exemplify this kind of love and virtue. Certainly, if we each loved God as we should, this world would be transformed into heaven itself. Sadly, none of us loves God in this way. We fall woefully short of this ideal. Nevertheless, God’s saving and common grace keep this world from being the hell that it could become apart from His grace. For this reason individual freedom of choice is still affirmed since it is the basis on which a person’s character is perfected in this world.

Despite this truth, in the economic realm such freedom of choice is often viewed negatively by some moralists who tend to equate liberty with license. This results in a debate as to whether we should allow economic liberty. On the one hand, advocates of freedom point out the resulting prosperity that invariably arises with freedom as a sufficient reason to embrace choice. Opponents point to various sorts of destructive behavior as evidence that choice must be limited. Is there a perspective that can support economic liberty within the framework of morality?

The nineteenth century economist, Frederic Bastiat thought so. For the theme of his book Economic Harmonies, he took the position that, “All men’s impulses, when motivated by legitimate self-interest, fall into a harmonious social pattern.”[1] For the moralist, this pronouncement appears to be a brazen disregard of moral duty. However, a more complete assessment of what Bastiat meant reveals this is not the case. He argued that liberty is the ultimate answer to the social problem.

Bastiat appealed to the fundamental problem associated with the opponents of liberty. Their position contends that human interests are forever at odds. Therefore, people have to be forced to do what is right. This justifies the use of coercion and ultimately of tyranny and despotism. But this also means we would have to find someone righteous to do the coercing. To escape the main premise, however, this person would have to be located outside of humanity because arbitrary power entrusted to human beings will always explode into corruption. As a result, the “antagonistic” view collapses under its own logic and has no place to end but in total despair.

Bastiat rejected that position opting instead to embrace the view that God’s providence ultimately serves as the foundation for freedom of choice. He began his argument with the assumption that God made humans to be sovereign agents of choice intended to live in a social setting. With this as a starting point, Bastiat sought to examine how the social order would progress if people interacted freely with each other. He argued that some immoral actions are self-limiting because the suffering resulting from the action falls on the actor himself. In addition, he argued that actions that cause others to suffer invites various reactions of solidarity which tend to limit that action in time. As a result, he believed the process would eventually give rise to human flourishing. Moreover, he observed that people do not consider moral and intellectual issues of life until the basic conditions to sustain life are secured. Therefore, he argued that economic freedom, giving rise to economic flourishing, would give rise to greater morality in time. Thus he believed that free and affluent societies would tend to be more virtuous than those that are poor.

I believe that Bastiat was on to something here. If we listen to the modern day moralist, we are most likely to increase government power. Government officials, in turn, will use that power to expand their control over people. Since no one is fit for the duty of planning and controlling society, the political class will promote its own interests and corruption will rise. As a result, immorality is most likely to be made more or less permanent. Indeed, the moralist will have unwittingly advocated for the spread of immorality.

[1] Frederic Bastiat, Economic Harmonies, (Irvington, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, 3rd printing, 1979), pg. xxi. This book is available free online in many places and I encourage you to read a few chapters in order to illustrate the fuller meaning of this theme.

Paul Cleveland

Boundary Stone was started by Dr. Paul Cleveland. Working as a professor for over 35 years has allowed him to study and think deeply about issues of political economy. He has discovered ways to communicate these sometimes illusive concepts to today's students, often through story telling, which makes understanding these principles more accessible to all of us.


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