I delivered this speech on Thursday evening, March 3, at an event we did in Newport Beach with Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute. I previously posted the video link of my speech, but recognizing some may prefer the written word, wanted to provide that here too. The topic of the speech represents the fundamental passion of my ideological interests and pursuits – the juxtaposition of markets and morality; the philosophical and theological foundations of free enterprise; the existential purpose of vocation and commerce; etc. There is no shortage of highly qualified people in the marketplace of ideas daily fighting the good fight to defend free and open markets, despite a political climate and culture where markets are easy to malign. But what is needed now more than ever are not merely more people capable of defending the better results a free market vs. a collectivist vision will produce, but rather more people defending the actual basis for such – the principles – the foundations. First things. Nothing has done more damage to the cause of free enterprise over the last half a century than attempts to defend it on sandy land.
I have been blessed to speak on some aspect of this topic dozens of times over the last decade or so in all sorts of different venues around the country. I manage money by day, and view my calling as a wealth advisor to be, well, my calling. But I have never felt that speaking on the capital markets or best practices around investing is all that different from this topic. You see, the investment management business is a by-product of the miracle of free enterprise – the effort to use natural laws of economics, of risk and reward, of scarcity, of all sorts of things – in the effort to generate a return on capital. And in my work as a wealth advisor, I am not interested in a “return on capital” in any sort of abstract or generic or undefinable sense. Rather, this concept of “investment return” is specifically applied to the needs and wants of human beings. Real life people with real life goals, funding those goals by participating in free enterprise. We talk about a “return on capital” as if it just happens, but the reality is that we only care about it happening to the extent it impacts human beings.
And that is the connection to my topic tonight. I care about investment returns to the extent that they meet the need of a client to whom I am covenantally duty-bound to protect. And my friends, I care about tonight’s topic, the free and virtuous society, only to the extent that I believe freedom and virtue are tools God has given us for human beings to live better lives.
I do not deny or discount the strong and compelling arguments for free enterprise that emphasize its efficiency, its fairness, or its distribution of risks and rewards. I do not deny the connectedness that free enterprise has with a strong and free republic, with a Constitutional democracy, or with the American experiment. Academically, I am sold on free enterprise as the best system for administering incentives and resources in our society; politically, I am convinced a free market economy is most compatible with the American experiment – one I deeply believe in and am blessed to live in.
However, my passion for this topic did not come from any academic or political itch which needed to be scratched. My enthusiasm for free markets, and more specifically, my vision for a free and virtuous society, is rooted in a theological belief, a moral belief, and an existential reality – that the cause of human flourishing is and must be the ultimate aim.
Sound economics fundamentally begins with the belief that God made man, and that God made man in His image, to be a sub-creator with Him. From the very first chapter of the Bible, we are told that man’s aim, man’s very purpose, is to exercise dominion in the earth, to subdue the earth, to grow the earth. Before we could even get to Genesis chapter 2, God was burying us with a pro-growth agenda. He made the earth in creation to be productive, to generate a yield on its own matter, and then He tasked us humans to manage and improve that process. He asked us to be fruitful. He asked us to be productive. He asked us to grow creation. We were to “multiply” (try having a rational conversation about economic growth without a conversation about population growth), and we were to subdue the earth to these aims of God the creator, which we share as His image-bearers. Before sin entered the world, before there was something called “vocation”, before there was “political economy” – there was in creation the basic concept of productivity – of growth – and there was man’s mandate to have dominion over this very process. In short, man was created to grow via the fruitfulness of his creation and our management of that.
Father Sirico who you will hear from shortly is perhaps the greatest advocate in the world for what he terms the “anthropological” argument for free enterprise – that God in his very creation of man made man to be productive actors. God made growth to be both a cause and an effect in His created order. And in this creation, in God’s intrinsic love of man, He bestowed upon man dignity. And even in our fallen state, God’s heart’s burning desire is to redeem us to Him, to see us and know us in fellowship with Him.
And to some extent, the “anthropological” argument for free enterprise is necessarily connected with the “existential” argument that I want to present tonight. There is no case for free enterprise as a driver of human dignity if we do not first see this dignity of the created man as something to be valued to begin with. We believe man is created with dignity, and therefore we care that systems of thought and practice honor that dignity, restore that dignity, protect that dignity, and enhance that dignity. Allow me to make two basic points as to how our approach to this topic can best honor this aim:
Free enterprise systems seek to create new wealth. Our contemporary obsession with the distribution of that wealth is a problematic distraction from the greater challenge that ALL systems of thought require some creation of wealth. The individualist and the collectivist are not at odds because one needs wealth creation to flourish and the other doesn’t; they are at odds because one wants to redistribute the wealth created by some, and has no fear of what this altered system of incentives will do to that wealth creation process. Those opposed to free enterprise want to slice up the wealth pie differently, but only free enterprise keeps its eye on the ball of growing that wealth pie. Margaret Thatcher famously said that “the problem with socialism is eventually you run out of other people’s money”. There is humor in this, of course, but there also is raw mathematical truth. Even the most benevolent of redistributionists, socialists, and collectivists must acknowledge that apart from the generation of new wealth – the process of human productivity that results from diligent allocation of resources (what we call free enterprise) – there will be no “wealth” to redistribute!
Think tanks and free-market groups can and should preach against the inevitable failure of redistributionism. The basic economic and mathematical argument that simply shuffling around the pie without creating new wealth is utterly unsustainable is a very important argument, and a moral one in that the testimony of history is so clear that only new wealth creation has brought countries and cultures out of poverty, out of starvation, out of impoverishment. But my comments tonight aim to go even deeper than the economic inadequacy that redistributionism represents. For at the core of the argument for a free and virtuous society is the optimization of human dignity, a human dignity that can only be valued when one fully appreciates that life was created by God, and was created by God to experience growth, achievement, productivity, and the human flourishing that takes place when one fulfills their very creation mandate – to work, to grow, to cultivate, to produce, to earn, to accomplish.
And so this gets me to the existential argument to which I previously referred. Economies cannot flourish and meet the needs of their citizens without wealth creation, regardless of how the pie gets distributed; but far worse than that – far worse than the pitiful GDP levels of countries that lack free market opportunity – far worse than the dark, pitiful skies of North Korea with its permanent desolation and fear – far worse than the economic metrics and data points that reflect no vertical mobility, no aspiration, no economic growth where collectivism reigns – is that at the heart of economics are PEOPLE. And just like the investment returns I work to create belong to people, the rewards of free enterprise are never merely “macroeconomic”, and certainly never merely “mathematical”, but rather strike at the heart of our personal existence as the creation of God. The existential benefit of free markets, then, are that they grant mankind the chance the earn her success – to participate in the fruitfulness of subduing the creation. If we reduce mankind to the level of an economic recipient robot, merely having his or her needs rationed for him by a small number of economic actors, if we take away from man the drama and thrill of creation productivity, then I am telling you that we are robbing man of his shared image with God. To the extent that my defense of free markets has ever amounted to a personal desire for lower tax rates or less restrictive right of exchange, as good and noble as those aims are, shame on me. To loathe free enterprise is to loathe the system that most optimally creates new wealth, and therefore is to celebrate human impoverishment.
I have enjoyed a fruitful 42 years on planet earth so far, and like all humans, my life has been filled with a combination of great joy and triumph with great challenge and heartache. Through the lowest points of my life, the God who created me to be in fellowship with Him, who created me to be redeemed to Him, also created me to produce for Him, and in that productivity be dignified as an image-bearer of God. My professional life, earlier labeled as that of an investment manager, has provided richly for me and my family. But I would trade all of that material blessing away if I had to, if it meant that I got to keep the single greatest reward a free enterprise system has provided me – the existential achievement of accomplishment, the gratification that I am living my life as a joyful co-creator with God. I ask all of you tonight to join me in praising and defending the free and virtuous society, not merely for its undeniable merits in creating prosperity, but even more so for its undeniable merit in granting the far greater gift of aspiration, and through that aspiration, flourishing.
Human flourishing – the true aim of a free and virtuous society, both the aim of the God who created it, and what must be the aim of the creation to whom He entrusted it.