One of the most vivid memories of my youth is watching the FB-111, B-52 and B-1 bombers take off and land. I’m sure I’ve seen an SR-71 land once, but it was dark. My dad flew the KC-135 air-to-air tankers, and I rode with him in Strategic Air Command (SAC) vans when cleared at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. The smell of jet fuel is prolific. For many, I’m sure; it has the scent of freedom. Up close, the afterburner bursts from a B-1 are a breathtaking experience in themselves.
My father often lived underground at the alert facility at various SAC bases. Once he got too close to the barbed wire fence as he was going out to visit his family, and guards equipped with M-16s surrounded him. Even though he was wearing his flight suit and had just walked through that same door. A reminder that you can’t get too close to the barbed wire fence. Nuclear weapons are stored there, ready to be deployed at any time against what was then a possible massive retaliation against a Soviet strike. Mutual assured destruction was popular terminology at the time.
I’ve seen a lot of bombers grow up. I saw military competitions and war game exercises. Vice President George HW Bush came to speak during the bomb competitions, and I remember being a little kid and wondering why his mother was with him. Barbara Bush, although attractive, also had her famous white hair then.
Growing up on military bases at home and abroad, all the weapons and planes made me think deeply about human freedom. What was defending all the impressive arsenal of mass destruction? Even then, I knew about the Cold War. I couldn’t avoid being a military kid, and with the release of movies like “Rocky IV”, “Red Dawn” or “The Hunt for Red October”.
Yet I didn’t pay much attention to the importance of free markets until college when I was in seminary. I’ve heard a lot of platitudes about helping the poor, mostly through government spending and programs, always calling for more programs. Much of the Church, especially mainstream Protestantism, has an unhealthy attachment to the so-called virtues promised by massive government spending and programs.
Some professors and students in class understood markets as a tool of greedy corporations and entrepreneurs to inflict suffering on the poor and middle class. Cases are often viewed with skepticism, sometimes even with derision. The Good Samaritan increasingly morphed into an image of the federal government.
Yet it is entrepreneurs and the small business community who take risks, building their assets and their security to bring new ideas and products to market. Entrepreneurs are job creation machines, but they also create content and implement visions that people want and desire for their own lives. There is a servant nature at work that is so often overlooked in a society that so often promotes individualism or, sadly, even narcissism. Entrepreneurs serve a need and a purpose for their neighbors and for the common good. They often have an innate ability to see what is missing in daily life and then follow the essential steps to make something previously unfathomable a reality. In other words, they must look beyond themselves to be successful. And whether they realize it or not, they reflect the image of God as co-creators in creating a better world that so often improves the lives of families and, yes, the “least of them.” which we must take care of in the Gospel. .
In fact, all over the world, markets are the model for growth. The reduction in poverty in the world is due to free markets. No other government course of action or political rhetoric even comes close to the results of the market economy.
Spontaneous order plays an important role. It is impossible to properly plan or navigate the manifestation of cooperating individuals who come together for mutually beneficial exchanges and transactions. This is a well-known phenomenon that is often mitigated or completely ignored by politicians or those who continually call for more centralized state power.
This is really my previous experience of working at the Acton Institute and studying the work of a former AEI Fellow Michael Novak (1933-2017) it completely opened my eyes to the morality of markets. Many Christians are going through periods of profound upheaval in how they view market capitalism. This may be true for some studying and focusing on a liberal arts degree.
Novak made the markets much more palpable for many because he firmly rooted the defense and vision of the free economy in the Judeo-Christian vision. Much credit must be given to Novak’s work for helping to increase positive views of the market in the Church and throughout the life of Christianity. What would believers and even many economists be without Novak now? It’s a good question.
Notably, Novak’s lyrics are just as prescient as ever. “The market lifts a lot of those who under other regimes were last, and tumbles a lot in previous regimes that were first,” Novak wrote in “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.” The line is a reminder that markets not only cause a leveling effect in society, but often promote the rapid advancement of traditional underclasses or those squeezed by the boot of tyranny. Unlike the command economy, a truly free market deprives malevolent individuals of ultimate power, which they seek to wield against their victims in an arbitrary and unfair manner.
More importantly, Novak’s work is a powerful reminder of the importance of moral restoration, not just in the economic sphere, but in all of life and culture. “Freedom itself demands unprecedented virtues, seldom seen in simpler and more simply ruled societies”, wrote Michael Novak. “In self-government, citizens are sovereigns and must learn to exercise the virtues of sovereigns.” Novak continually reminds us that people who participate in and benefit from the free economy must be rooted in the richness of love for one another and, yes, in ancient truths. Moreover, the free market elevates the destiny of the human person because it elevates human creativity.
In my own life, the markets undeniably have a positive impact on my life. Through investment, strong property rights, my own hard work, and the help of my parents, I was able to graduate from college and then graduate school without any debt. An interest in investing and saving has allowed me to pursue work not only for economic and material benefit, but to pursue a passion for the study of freedom and truth, integrating it fully into a professional vocation and a passion for writing.
Markets through scientific innovation ultimately helped to dramatically improve my health through drug therapy. Pharmaceutical companies often receive negative reviews or derisive rhetorical arrows from politicians, but the investment in drug research has transformed my health and, therefore, my life for the better. Healing comes in many forms, and markets are proving to be an invaluable tool for many people with chronic illnesses and other physical limitations.
I bought a house in 2015 and my wife is expecting a third son in October. Markets provide an opportunity to plan and rectify the past. My gratitude for the market is robust. Markets have literally transformed my life and the lives of billions of people around the world. The free market continually rewards human production and hard work. The ability to create and the strength that emanates from all this intellectual dynamism remind us that wealth is not only made through land, physical property or the material world. Wealth is also human capital and potential. Wealth is not a fixed cake, as the statist so often proclaims.
Humans are created with purpose, and markets allow us to thrive and find our destiny in life. Command economies and socialism continually restrict freedom. It places unnecessary limits on what humans can accomplish for themselves and others. This kind of thinking creeps into our politics when leaders speak of scarcity instead of abundance, leading the population to fight for table scraps offered by the government or a dictatorial strongman.
When the Cold War ended, many assumed that the planned economy was destined for permanent decline and that freedom in all avenues of life was destined to collapse. Yet markets or even an entire republic uncommitted to truth and virtue face threats that are not merely external. When qualities such as civic virtue decline, it impacts not just markets, but the entire trajectory of ordered freedom.
Free markets are worth fighting for not just because they lift millions out of poverty and make life easier, but because they uplift human nature and tap spiritual energy and creativity to the point of there untapped. Moreover, the utilitarian arguments for market capitalism are only a minor benefit to the whole when properly considered and directed within a moral framework.
When I remember all the jets and weapons on high alert to defend this nation and the free way of life, it’s a much richer understanding now than I had then. Freedom is primarily a spiritual benefit, and the creativity of free people is unmatched anywhere in the world. Markets play a vital role in this truth. We are a nation that stormed beaches, liberated continents and freed slaves under communism. The market economy constantly affirms the way of life we stand for, and freedom is not only worth practicing, but something we should all continually celebrate.
Ray Nothstine is an opinion writer for the Carolina Journal and a research fellow at the John Locke Foundation.
This essay first appeared in the October/November print edition of the Carolina Journal.