by Nick Smith
This past October, I had the opportunity to attend the Acton Institute’s conference for future religious leaders: “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society.” As a third-year student studying for the ministry in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, I was eager for the opportunity to consider the ways in which Christian theology ought to inform our economic thinking and practices.
The centerpiece of the weekend was a series of nine lectures and two panel discussions. The lectures presented a combination of Christian principles, practical concerns, and “hard” economics. Fr. Laird provided theological foundations, Dr. Gregg showed how those theological concerns translated into economic principles, Mr. Bradley discussed the practical ways in which the church ought to be ministering to the poor, and Mr. Bandow provided insight into how biblically-grounded economic principles are worked out in economic (and political) detail. That combination of theological insight, pastoral concern, and economically hard-hitting rhetoric was – and I’m not exaggerating here – simply exhilarating. These guys really need to write more books.
The goal of the conference is perhaps best summarized by its tagline: “connecting good intentions with sound economics.” What we have today is a disastrous disconnect between sound economic teaching and what would otherwise be good intentions. There is a widespread disapproval of the free market economy as being responsible for institutionalizing greed and disregarding the concerns of the poor. Everyone knows that it is the socialists who really care about the poor. But the weekend conference made it absolutely clear that the dilemma need not be between the socialists who care about the poor and the capitalists who only care about wealth.
Rather, in the light of sound economic thinking (and the empirical realities of history), it becomes clear that a concern for the poor and free market principles fit together most sweetly. The principles of free choice, incentives, private property, and the rule of law – principles which lie at the foundation of the free market economy – find their origin in the Christian doctrines of creation (theology proper) and man (anthropology). That is to say, if we truly care for the poor and desire to promote human flourishing, then we ought to pursue the economic principles that flow most naturally from Christian anthropology. This is one of the fundamental insights communicated by the Acton institute: if we are going to help the poor, if we are going to promote human flourishing, then we must do so in a way that is consistent with a Christian view of the world.
This means that we ought to reject many social and political policies, however well-intended they may be. One is reminded of the incisive comment made by Frédéric Bastiat in The Law: “It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.” We must connect good intentions with sound economics. It is not enough to desire that people be able to eat. The lessons of history teach us that certain economic policies, though well-intended, consistently fail – and fail miserably. And the reason that they fail miserably is that they are based on principles in opposition to the biblical doctrines of God and man.
A further goal of the conference was to communicate a positive vision of the goodness of business. Even among those who may favor a free market economy, there is a sometimes intangible discomfort with business and profit. Can someone really be a faithful Christian and a successful businessmen? The conference made it clear that the calling of being an entrepreneur is a calling that comes from God and is grounded in creation. Business is a fundamentally creative act. By starting a business, a man or woman creates a miniature society in which people work together to create and to serve. In so doing, a businessman images his Creator. By putting people to work and satisfying the wants of consumers, a successful business is a positive force for good in human society.
Economic education wasn’t the only purpose of the conference. Perhaps equally as important, the weekend brought together men and women from throughout the Western Christian tradition – men and women with a shared commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy and to seeing Christian anthropology affect the way we think about economics. There was an endless stream of stimulating conversation – between lectures, over meals, and during evening hospitality. The food and drink were wonderful, and the accommodations were comfortable. The weekend was a great opportunity for casual conversation with students of many different disciplines – political theory, law, and theology, to name a few. As I commented to my wife after the conference: there were a lot of really smart people there.
In conclusion, I would like to thank the many supporters of the Acton Institute. I can not speak highly enough of the work that the Institute is doing. This is not to say that I agree with the writers and speakers at every point. But I suspect that isn’t really their goal, anyway. It seems to me that at its heart the Acton Institute is about promoting a conversation. There is a great lack of sound economic thinking among today’s’ religious leaders, and the Acton Institute is making an essential contribution to solving that problem.