Summer 2009 -- When I first learned about Ayn Rand's idea that economic freedom and religious freedom could be parallel and, in essence, the same, I was stunned. Now, I know that Rand's reasons boil down to the fact that knowledge can only be objective if it is the result of the judgment of a rational mind. And rational judgment is free and independent, driven only by the facts. This connection between objectivity and freedom applies equally to questions of religion and questions of buying, selling, and contracting.
But these two freedoms are not treated equally in today's culture, and Rand's insight would sound like a wild disconnect in mainstream discussions of politics.
Today, in the world's richest and most powerful country, the United States of America, religious toleration is a founding commitment, one written deeply into U.S. laws and culture. Banning a religion as such is simply off the table in U.S. politics. Outside the U.S., while not every country respects freedom of religion, the minority who don't are backward and riven by conflict.
Meanwhile, economic freedom is nowhere fully observed, and only a few countries come even close to consistently respecting it. Economic liberty is associated with prosperity (think: Hong Kong), but it isn't taken seriously as a consistent principle.
Does the successful spread of religious freedom have implications for how economic liberty might, too, take wing?
The Irreligiosity of Religious Freedom
Religious toleration in the West derives primarily from a practical consideration and a philosophical argument.
The practical consideration was the 17th century wars of religion, including the Thirty Years’ War in Germany and the English Civil War. These vicious, devastating wars taught religious devotees to value their autonomy more than the ability to control their neighbors. And their indecisive results made many think of religion as a topic that could not be resolved by force.
The philosophical argument was John Locke's famous and influential argument from "A Letter Concerning Religious Toleration." It can be summarized as follows:
- Since belief is a state internal to the mind, it cannot be compelled.
- Abridging freedom of religion and forcing people to profess some one faith causes people to profess belief.
- God is interested in the state of your soul, not your mere profession of belief.
- Therefore abridging freedom of religion is an offense against both God and man.
Notice that Locke's argument is not an atheist's argument. An atheist might argue simply that since God does not exist, compelling people to profess belief is to compel them to profess a falsehood. That can't be right.
So, as David Ross has pointed out to me, it is ironic that freedom of religion is also freedom to have no religion. That was not Locke's stated intent. Further, Locke's argument is itself atheistic in part. It rests on facts about human nature: that people have free will and that knowledge (with its attendant state of belief) cannot be compelled. He also analyzes the nature and purpose of government power. These are not facts derived from revelation, but rather from experience. It isn't clear why a committed irrationalist cannot simply reject Locke's naturalism and insist that his God does value mere appearance or that God has made man to need compulsion.
So religious freedom arose primarily because of the real-world effects of religious intolerance combined with a shared, Enlightenment-era cultural commitment to reasoning based on facts. In other words, those who support religious freedom have non-religious beliefs that matter more than their religious beliefs.
The Egoism of Freedom to Value
Economic liberty stands today about where religious freedom did 300 years ago. The idea is out there, it's been tried here and there, and the collapse of communism taught everyone a practical lesson in the consequences of unifying the economy with the state. But most people doubt that consistent economic freedom can work, or that it will fit with their values.
Locke's argument for religious toleration was addressed to people who were religious. A libertarian economist might make an argument for economic freedom that follows similar lines to Locke's. It would appeal to the idea that economic freedom—freedom to value things and to deal with others voluntarily—is good for everyone, no matter how they define "good."
The libertarian might say:
- All human beings have preferences and free will. To prefer one option over another is an individual act.
- Since it is impossible to know reliably in advance what anyone will prefer, to compel people to accept one option over another results only in the appearance of preference, not the reality.
- But we cannot enjoy the appearance of preferring. What we enjoy is doing what we actually prefer.
- So no matter what one prefers, economic freedom is the right policy. Another way of putting this point is that there is no morality without choice.
Notice that this argument is aimed at all sort of value systems, not just pro-capitalist ones. Even if one prefers that all people abandon their cars and bicycle to work, or even if one prefers that the rich give almost all their money to the poor, one should still agree that without economic freedom, no one can do what they really prefer.
It is perhaps ironic, then, to realize that while this libertarian-ish argument leaves room for all sorts of ethics, it would allow one ethic in particular to flourish. This is an ethic that many moral theorists regard as the ethical equivalent of atheism, i.e., no ethics at all. It is the ethics of egoism, of rational selfishness. After all, under the separation of the state from the economy, people could be as selfish as turned out to be practical. And really, this argument depends on selfishness as a moral ideal, since it trades on the idea that no moral value trumps each person's individual happiness. It is also accepts a key underlying premise of rational egoism: that preference is only realized in choices, or, in other words, that "value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep."
Religious toleration makes room for all sorts of faiths. Yet in accepting religious toleration as a founding principle, America committed itself culturally to a fundamentally pro-reason, this-worldly society. It was committed not only to the idea that religious faith should be respected, but to the idea that in the intersection between faiths and sub-communities—between Lutherans and Catholics, Amish and Jews—there existed the deeper truth that we are all human, part of the same reality, sharing a nature, and bound by the rule of reason.
Similarly, economic liberty is value toleration: it makes room for the authentic expression of human choices, whatever their rationale or basis. It lets all people judge for themselves what their good consists in, taking full responsibility for their decisions. In that sense it is value-free: it is of all values and any values. And yet, if it is to endure, economic liberty needs to rest on a culture that is pro-reason, this-worldly, pro-achievement and pro-trade. This culture would be committed to the idea that in the intersections between belief systems and ethical communities—between drivers and bikers, organic farmers and genetic engineers, Greens and Conservatives—there exists the deeper truth that we are all individuals, each of us needing to live and be happy, each with the right to guide his own choices, and each responsible for himself.