I often talk about the virtues of a free society and they are vast. When we are free to live into the gifts and talents God has given us we are able to both contribute to the flourishing of others and benefit from the flourishing that others help create. In this way, flourishing is positive sum. I benefit when I find ways to serve not just my family, neighbors and church members but when I find ways to serve complete strangers.
That is what a free society encourages. Rather than finding ways to plunder, steal, exploit and manipulate; market economies encourage us to create, innovative and problem-solve. When we look across the globe at the poorest and most destitute places on the planet we can see that plunder is the way to “be on top” and to maintain that societal posture, one must keep plundering. The oppressed, those who live at the expense of the plunderers cannot thrive and the vicious cycle of poverty and oppression continues.
What often goes unnoticed in all of this is that families are crushed under this type of life. Mothers and fathers are unable to provide their families with things that we take for granted like learning to read, playing in the park, and mastering the bicycle. In wealthy societies we take these daily activities for granted in many cases. We often fail to stop and realize how rich we actually are, and not just in material terms but in our time.
When we are able to unleash our creative talents and trade with others it alleviates us from having to do everything on our own. Think about the woman who is forced to wash her clothes by the riverbed. She shares the river with animals, the water is filthy and the work is backbreaking. She doesn’t have very many attractive alternatives and so she must do it, day in and day out. In doing this she is being faithful to her family and fulfilling her God-given duties to care for her family, but it is hard. In fact, it is likely that she does not consume enough daily calories to sustain this effort.
Imagine what it would be like for her to have access to electricity and a washing machine. It would free her calories and her precious time. When her time and energy is freed for other things she can care for her family in other ways. It also enables her to develop her God-given creativity.
Market economies are not just about “being rich” and padding our Bank of America accounts, they are about unleashing each person’s creativity to problem solve for others not just for ourselves. Market economies in this regard require that innovators and problem-solvers who want to “be rich” must have compassion and empathy for people who suffer. They don’t have to love them, but they do have to sympathize, to put themselves in the shoes of others, and from that find ways to solve problems.
When this happens we are all better able to thrive. I just took my daughter to her annual checkup and I was confronted with how much I personally benefit from this. The doctor was able to become specially trained, which took years of her life, and countless hours of study. The doctor then is able to know what problems to look for, what issues might be present and when she cannot solve them, she refers us to a specialist who is also trained to diagnose and then solve. My family can thrive because others have dedicated years of study to become experts in my child’s health. When these doctors underwent this laborious task of becoming experts, they didn’t even know me or my family and in fact my children were not yet born.
That is the power of a free society. We seek to serve strangers and in doing that we can become rich, but not just rich materially. My doctor benefits from others who develop medical devices, and those folks benefit from others who work on computer technology and those folks depend on other who have found ways to use assembly lines to hasten the manufacturing of all of these things.
This interdependency means that for all of us our time is freed. My doctor can specialize, as can the person who makes medical instruments as can everyone else. If we all had to do everything on our own, we could not thrive and we barely survive under such conditions. We are not created to do everything on our own so when we can only rely on ourselves we experience poverty and suffering.
Free markets save lives and that is what makes us rich. Being rich is not just about the amount of money in your bank account but about the freed time and the longevity that economic freedom brings. This is all because we are encouraged to serve strangers.
Dr. Anne Rathbone Bradley is the Vice President of Economic Initiatives at The Institute for Faith, Works and Economics, where she develops and commissions research toward a systematic biblical theology of economic freedom. She is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, and she also teaches at The Institute for World Politics and George Mason University. Additionally, she is a visiting scholar at the Bernard Center for Women, Politics, and Public Policy. Previously, she has taught at Charles University, Prague, and she has served as the Associate Director for the Program in Economics, Politics, and the Law at the James M. Buchanan Center at George Mason University.