Why Are So Many Protestants Capitalists But Not Libertarians?

Protestant Christians (with the exception of some “emerging church” types) overwhelmingly support free-markets and fiscal prudence on the part of governments.  I used to baffle at why more Protestants are not also in favor of civil or “social” freedom in the same way.

But the real question is not why Protestants do not favor social freedom, but why they do favor economic freedom.

Doubtless there are myriad reasons, not least of which is the effectiveness of free-market capitalism at alleviating earthly troubles like sickness and poverty.  Perhaps it is also the fact that all regulatory intrusions into the economic sphere are backed by force, and the act of coercion itself is not generally supported by Christians.  Neither of these reasons, however (particularly not the latter) are common arguments made by Protestant Christians I know who support market freedom.

The argument I hear most often for limited government taxing, spending, borrowing, inflating and regulating is that all of these things are in and of themselves irresponsible if not immoral.  Not because they involve coercion, but because thrift is a virtue, debt is a burden and easy money corrodes work ethic and honesty.

Most Protestants would heartily agree with Henry Hazlitt in chapter 20 of The Inflation Crisis and How to Resolve It, titled, “Inflation versus Morality”.  In fact, most would find Hazlitt’s arguments almost instinctively correct.  Inflation and irresponsible fiscal policy in general not only create economic problems, they create moral problems.  They fuel wild speculation, gambling, deceit; they discourage hard work, saving, honesty and patience.  Government bailouts and guarantees remove responsibility from the individual actor and corrode his conscience and self-control.  For Protestants, not only do arguments against government fiscal and monetary policy rest on the “moral hazard”, but so too do arguments against the welfare state and forced “charity”.  Rewarding irresponsible behavior with handouts shelters individuals from bearing their decisions, improving their lot, or even just reaching out for genuine assistance from others, spiritual and physical.

This is a compelling argument for economic freedom.  Indeed, it is tragic that the “moral hazard” argument is so rarely applied to non-economic issues.

The famous poet, theologian, and political protester John Milton advanced this argument boldly and eloquently in defense of free-speech against censorship. His Areopagitica, a brilliant tract against England’s laws of Imprimatur, makes the case that the greatest harm done by prohibiting blasphemous and unseemly publications is not harm done to the authors or even readers, but to those who would be deprived of the choice not to read it, and thereby would lose the ability to make a truly moral choice.

Milton felt that speech must be free if men are to ever be moral beings.  Sheltering a person from any possibility of acting wrongly does not make a person of character.  Additionally, Milton argued that weakness and fear are what motivate the desire to prohibit “false” writings.  Can’t truth stand on her own?  Can’t those who seek her find her and avoid falsehood?

“And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.”

The legislation of virtue, as in the case of welfare programs or progressive taxation, cannot make a virtuous person nor encourage charity.  In fact, it effectively kills the ability to practice genuine charity.  Protestants usually understand this (though that understanding became quite foggy during G.W. Bush’s push for government encouragement of faith-based initiatives).

What too many Protestants fail to understand is that, just as one cannot successfully force virtue, one cannot effectively legislate against vice.

The moral hazard exists in the social sphere as much as in the economic.  To act as an overly protective nanny and take away “bad” personal choices creates an incentive structure no less damaging to moral man than the encouragement of imprudent economic actions.  All the Christian virtues require genuine, heart-level, individual acceptance and action.  All the Christian vices require genuine, heart-level, individual self-control.  Offering an easy out, a fallback, or an added incentive to either of these actions dulls the soul and deadens true morality for the individual and undermines genuine charity and love from the community.

The world is not so neatly divided into the economic and social spheres.  Nor should our arguments for freedom be.


Note: I am not singling out Protestants against Catholic or Orthodox Christians.  I only mention Protestants because a) I am most familiar with them and, b) Catholic and Orthodox Christians tend to have different arguments for or against free-markets and social freedoms.