This word that we hold dear. This ideal. This right. This concept that people throughout the centuries have fought and died for.
My last few posts have caused a bit of debate. In fact the last one caused a bit of a stir on social media. Ironically, the criticism of the post and of Pope Francis only further prove the point. To make an economic concept a demi-god, to allow one’s ideology to become one’s “religion”, no matter how good or just that ideology may be, is to create an idol. This is, in part what Pope Francis was talking about in Evangelii Gaudium. He was also warning against the danger of forgetting that the whole point of an economy is to benefit people. It has to be about people. Not things. Not wealth. Not accumulation. People. A good friend of mine (who is smarter than me) summed it up quite nicely when he explained, “Without the governing influence of the Christian ideal, both socialism and capitalism value efficiency, profit, or the illusory workers paradise more than individual persons and the family. The individual human person is simply seen as a cog, a means to an end. This is the point that Pope Francis is trying to make. It is the same point that every Pope since Leo XIII has been trying to make to both the socialist and the capitalist. It is point Chesterton and Belloc tried to make.”
While I think this is an excellent summation, I recognize that there are still those who are not willing to concede the point, either from misunderstanding, stubbornness, or simply because they have never really thought about it before. So I want to address a particular criticism that I have heard: that which says Capitalism is necessary for freedom, and that freedom and capitalism must co-exist in order for a society to be truly free. So let’s talk about freedom.
Here in America we hold our Freedom very dear. We know that brave men and women have died defending it. We ask ourselves if we would do the same. We learn our history and teach our children how American came to be. We hope that we are passing on the noble and brave ideals that our forefathers put into writing so eloquently in the 1770s. But what is Freedom?
It’s easy to see how we have linked an economic concept with the idea of freedom. We even call it a “free market” economy. Often times “free market” is synonymous with capitalism. But we are limiting ourselves and our definition of freedom if we believe that it is dependent upon economics. Those who defend this view will point to the fall of communism in Russia and say that it was due in large part to a triumph of capitalism over communism. While I do not dispute the economic aspect of the fall of communism, there was a lot more behind it than Reagan, a red phone, and a push for a “free market;” and any student of world history knows that something such as the fall of communism is a lot more complex than a simple economic equation. But that is a topic for another post. I want to talk about freedom.
The best definition of freedom I have come across is from Pope John Paul II.
This sums it up so succinctly. Freedom is not merely something bestowed by a government, or even by another person, and it is inextricably linked with faith. First and foremost it is a right. It is interior. Secondarily it is external – having the right to do as I ought. There is a duality to Freedom. It is personal – interior – am I enslaved to sin? Am I enslaved to an idea? Am I free to love God? and it is exterior – communal – am I free to do as I ought? Can I worship God as He has commanded? Am I free to live my faith publicly? Am I able to serve my neighbor and raise my family as God has instructed?
To further understand freedom as it pertains to society, we again look to John Paul II:
Once again we see Freedom as something at once internal and external. We also see that Freedom needs a purpose. This is instructive. It means that Freedom is made for man, not man for Freedom. It means that Freedom can be lost, that we can forfeit it. It also means it can be reclaimed. On a personal level this is best illustrated by man’s relationship to sin. Sin strips us of freedom. It chains us – makes us slaves to ourselves and our base desires. It is this slavery – this non-freedom – that compels men towards greed, towards accumulating power and wealth and profit as an end in itself. It is what propels us to use other people . This utilitarianism is quite apparent in the Marxist model. It is also present in a Free-Market that is devoid of the morals and “laws written in the hearts of men and women.” So one can be living in a so called “free society” and yet not be free. Conversely, one can also be living in what would be considered a society devoid of freedom (think North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela etc) and be free. Interior Freedom is not dependent upon circumstances. It is dependent upon one’s relationship with God. It is linked to Faith. It is written in our hearts. If we are free to Love God – and truly it is only sin that can remove from us our ability to love God – then not even man, not even death can take from us our Freedom. Freedom to Love – to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love even our enemies, to Love God above all else. This Freedom is not contingent upon our circumstances. It is not dependent up on a Government, a society or even other people. It is Freedom in its deepest sense.
But what of our first definition? “Freedom to do as we ought?” Isn’t this more of a public form of freedom? Well, on the surface it certainly seems that way, and we will address it in a moment, but if we ask ourselves “What is it that I ought to do?” we will again arrive at the same answer: I must love God above all else, I must love my neighbor and love my enemy. I must love.” That is what I ought to do. It is why we were created; to know, love and serve God in this life so we may worship and adore Him for all eternity in the next. Again, this knowing, loving, and serving Him is not contingent upon our external circumstances, but rather on our interior state.
Now, when it comes to an American concept of freedom you can usually assume that it is the external, societal freedom that is being spoken of. Here we can also rely on both definitions given to us by Pope John Paul II. According to him, a society would be defined as free if the individuals in that society were able to do as they ought. Not at they want, but as they ought. This is where we usually see a discussion of the difference between freedom and licence. A free society is not a society that allows its citizens to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Our more libertarian friends sometimes have a difficult time with this definition. That is because they are thinking in terms of licence, not of freedom. Remember that Freedom, when not tied in with the laws of conscience, when it has no purpose, “turns against society.” This is anarchy. It is not freedom. This is why we have laws. Laws, according to the Catholic understanding of them, are necessary to maintain and protect freedom. They are not meant to detract from it. When a law is created from one’s conscience and is bound to the natural and moral laws, that law promotes freedom. It allows for the individuals of a society to “do as they ought.” Think of the Ten Commandments – the Law of Moses. These laws ensured freedom to the Israelites. They created an atmosphere and a societal framework in which Israel could flourish – and do as they ought; namely, Obey and Worship the I Am. God. When any of those laws were broken (or are broken today) because someone took the licence to break them, what follows is not freedom, but a breakdown of freedom and a harming of the society.
The Natural and Moral laws written on our hearts cannot be separated from real freedom. These laws of nature provide a framework in which we can “do as we ought.” It is when laws begin to ignore the natural order and the morality that is stamped on our hearts that we see freedom being eroded. When laws cease to be about ensuring that a society may do as it ought , that society is no longer a free society. We can see this in any number of examples: mandating that individuals pay for certain items that they may not want limits their ability to do as they ought. Even if they “ought” to buy these things for their own good, the act of ordering them to do so and taking away their ability to decide to do as they ought limits their freedom. Forcing people to do good (ie: spreading the wealth around) takes away a person’s ability to do as he or she ought (give to the poor). This is not freedom. You cannot legislate freedom and a Government cannot bestow it. The most a government can do is create an atmosphere that is conducive to freedom – a societal framework that allows individuals to do as they ought, and that respects the moral and natural laws that are written in the hearts of men and women.
Now one more time we need to mention what it is that I ought to do. If we are to look at this through the paradigm of Catholicism than I already answered the question above: what I ought to do is seek to know, love and serve God, and to love my neighbor as myself. We discussed what this looked like personally within the understanding of personal freedom, but what about publicly? How does one “do as one ought” within the framework of society? Simply put, Freedom in this context would constitute free exercise of religion. The ability to publicly live and express one’s Faith. If the purpose of Freedom is to do as one ought, and if what one ought to do is know, love, and serve God, and love neighbor, then it stands to reason that within our definition of a free society, individuals must be accorded the opportunity to practice this “doing as they ought” with respect to their neighbors and fellow members of society. This is the external definition of Freedom. This is where we can easily see if a society is free or not.
Taken in this context, one could logically conclude that the economy of the society would flow from the ability or inability of its members to do as they ought, not determine their ability for them. The economics of a society are the result of the freedom or non-freedom of a society, not the determining factor. To take it a step further, I would argue that the more free (internally) individuals there are within a society, the more likely the the society is to be free (externally), and the economy of that society would at once be the product of and conducive to freedom – placing the human person and his or her dignity (and therefore his or her ability to do as they ought) as the object of that economy’s success.
Now take a look at the converse. I will even go so far as to suggest thinking of America in this example. The more individuals enslaved to themselves and their base desires (internally) within a society, the more that society will limit the (external) freedom of its members – limiting or prohibiting them from doing as they ought in the public square – the more that economy will focus on wealth, power, greed, etc as its object, thereby reducing the human person as a means to an end, further limiting the (external) freedom of the individuals.
You see, I don’t need to name economic systems in this example. Whether they are communist, capitalist, Marxist, Utopian, trickle-down, distributist, anarchist, mercantile, Keynesian, feudal….etc is primarily irrelevant to our discussion of Freedom. Of course you can look at our above examples and make some educated deductions as to which economic systems would best flow from a Free Society, but I shall leave that for you to deduce on your own. Besides, you already know what I think on that subject anyway!