Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Thematic: Markets and the Good

An Economic Theology of Liberalism

In defense of adultism.

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

THR illustration (background: Kseniya Lapteva/Unsplash).

One can be a serious Christian, favoring for all humans a turn toward God, and at the same time, without serious contradiction, a serious economic liberal, favoring for all humans a thorough equality of permission under law. That is, one can be serious all around, advocating both the divinity of Jesus and the liberty of commerce. One can renounce Satan and all his ever popular works, yet also reject coerced collectivism in most of its own ever popular forms.

Christianity can entail cheerful obedience to a modest state pursuing a few reasonable public purposes: compelled vaccination, unimperial national defense, judges and police enforcing tort law. But much of what the state has increasingly abrogated to itself during the past century or so should in justice and prudence be left to individual initiative, locally in the manner of the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching, and with state-enforced regulations but not direct state supply in the case of such things as roads, water, and education. A Christian is not compelled to approve of big, centralized, top-down, all-wise, infantilizing governance by masterful humans, “integralism” in its extreme Christian form—or even what many view as a nuanced, moderate quasi-“liberalism” that nonetheless has resulted in an increasingly coercive megastate. What I call here “statism,” proliferating on the left or right worldwide over the past century, is the opposite of true liberalism. We true liberals, following the example of John Stuart Mill, admit a role for the state. We are not literal anarchists. But we true Christian liberals note that God has liberated our individual human wills and wants us to use them free from the unreasonable coercion of masters or husbands or governors.

And a true economic and political liberalism can contribute mightily to our Christianity. God comes first and last, of course, the telos of our being, in the church or in the market, while we pray or while we work. Yet economic liberalism can contribute to a virtuous faith. It can do so, for example, by encouraging in the marketplace a practice of virtuous soul-crafting. Such crafting was called doux commerce by some eighteenth-century French writers, who had plenty of experience with the coerced, collective alternatives imposed by l’État. Said Montesquieu, “Wherever there are sweet manners, there is commerce; and…wherever there is commerce, there are sweet manners.”11xBaron de Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat), Complete Works of Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws (De l’esprit des lois), 1748, bk. 20, ch. 1, “If Commerce.”: “que partout où il y a des mœurs douces, il y a du commerce; et que partout où il y a du commerce, il y a des mœurs douces.”

Commercial liberty, in other words, is not fated to corrupt a soul to the worship of māmonā—Jesus’s term in his native Aramaic for money or wealth (i.e., mammon), as in Matthew 6:24: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Such corruption has been routinely claimed, especially by Christians, to be an irresistible temptation to the sin of greed. But despite its great popularity, this assertion has surprisingly little backing in logic or evidence. A species of “greed,” after all, is universal in living things, or else they don’t live. Yet many other virtues, such as adult justice and temperance, are specifically human. A childish, animalistic, excessive fondness for money (in Greek, philarguria, “avarice,” literally “love of silver”), and for other earthly trinkets, is indeed a root of all, or, at any rate, much evil, as St. Paul declared in Timothy 6:10. But the root is not the lucre, nor is it the system in which it is used. Money is not new. Since the pyramids or the song lines or the caves, we Homo sapiens have used a store of capital, a standard of value, and a medium of exchange, with which we accumulate and calculate. Though all human societies have stores and standards of value, within families or groups of friends or within command organizations like armies and firms, we do not need a medium of exchange. But when dealing with strangers or at arm’s length we do need such a medium, an item called “money” in all three functions, whether cowry shells or bits of gold or bank accounts. So it was when hunter-gatherers came from all over Britain to Stonehenge or from all over the upper Middle East to the great temple constructions, according to one interpretation, at Göbekli Tepe in southwest Asia Minor.

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