One of the most vivid memories from my youth is watching the FB-111s, B-52s, and B-1 bombers take off and land. I’m sure I saw an SR-71 land once, but it was dark. My dad flew the KC-135 air refuelers, and I’d ride around with him in the Strategic Air Command (SAC) vans when permitted 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 of a B-1 are a jaw-clenching experience by itself.
My father often lived underground at the alert facility at different SAC bases. One time he got too close to the razor wire fence line while walking out to visit his family, and guards with M-16s surrounded him. Even though he had his flight suit on and just came out of that very gate. A reminder you can’t get too close to the razor wire fence. Nuclear weapons are stored there, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice against what was then a possible massive retaliation against a Soviet strike. Mutually assured destruction was the popular terminology back then.
I saw a lot of bombers growing up. I saw military competitions and war game exercises. Vice President George H.W. Bush came to speak during the bomb competitions, and I remember being a little kid and wondering why his mom was with him. Barbara Bush, though attractive, had her famous white hair then too.
Growing up on military bases at home and abroad, all the weapons and aircraft pushed me to think deeply about human freedom. What was all the impressive armory of mass destruction defending? Even then, I knew about the Cold War. I couldn’t avoid it being a military brat, 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 graduate school when I was in seminary. I heard plenty of platitudes about assisting the poor, mainly through government spending and programs, always the echoing cry for more programs. Much of the Church, particularly mainline Protestantism, has an unhealthy attachment to the supposed virtues promised through big government spending and programs.
Some professors and students in class understood markets as a tool of greedy corporations and entrepreneurs to inflict pain on the poor and middle class. Business is often viewed with skepticism, if not outright derision at times. The Good Samaritan increasingly morphed into a picture of the federal government.
Yet, it’s the entrepreneurs and small businesses community that take risks, putting up their assets and security to bring new ideas and products to the marketplace. Entrepreneurs are job creation machines, but they also create content and implement visions people want and desire for their own lives. There is a servant nature to the work that is so often overlooked in a society that so often promotes individualism or, sadly, even narcissism. Entrepreneurs serve a need and purpose for their neighbors and for the common good. They often have an innate ability to see what’s missing in daily life and then take the essential follow-through steps to make something previously unfathomable a reality. Simply put, they must look beyond themselves to be successful. And whether they realize it or not, they reflect the image of God as co-creators by creating a better world that so often improves the lives of families and, yes, the “least of these” we are commanded to care for in the Gospel.
In fact, across the world, markets are the model for growth. The decline of poverty worldwide is because of free markets. No other plan of government action or political rhetoric even comes close to the results of the market economy.
Spontaneous order plays a significant role. It’s impossible to thoroughly plan or navigate the manifestation of cooperating individuals coming together for mutually beneficial trade and transactions. This is a well-known phenomenon that is often diminished or ignored altogether by politicians or the many who continually clamor for more centralized state power.
It’s really my prior experience working at the Acton Institute and studying the works of former AEI scholar Michael Novak (1933-2017) that fully opened my eyes to the morality of markets. Many Christians go through periods of deep turmoil in how they view market capitalism. This can be true for some that study and focus on a liberal arts degree.
Novak made markets much more palpable for many because he rooted the defense and vision for the free economy firmly in the Judeo-Christian vision. Much credit should be given to Novak’s work in helping to increase positive views of the market in the Church and the entire life of Christianity. Where would believers and even many economists be without Novak now? It’s a fair question.
Notably, Novak’s words are just as prescient now as ever. “The market raises up many who under other regimes were last, and tumbles many in earlier regimes that were first,” wrote Novak in “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.” The line is a reminder that markets not only cause a leveling effect in society but often foster rapid advancement of traditional underclasses or those pressed down upon by the boot of tyranny. Unlike the command economy, a truly free market deprives evil individuals of ultimate power, which they seek to dispense against their victims in an arbitrary and unfair fashion.
Most importantly, Novak’s work is a powerful reminder of the importance of moral restoration, not just in the economic sphere but the whole of life and culture. “Liberty itself requires unprecedented virtues, rarely seen in simpler and more simply led societies,” wrote Michael Novak. “In self-government, citizens are sovereigns, and must learn to exercise the virtues of sovereigns.” Novak continually reminds us that the people who participate and benefit from the free economy must be rooted in the richness of love for the other and, yes, ancient truths. Furthermore, the free market elevates the destiny of the human person because it elevates human creativity.
In my own life, markets undeniably impact my life for good. Through investing, robust property rights, my own hard work, and the help of my parents, I was able to graduate from university and then graduate school with no debt. An interest in investing and thrift allowed me to pursue work not only for economic and material benefit alone but to pursue a passion for studying freedom and truth, fully incorporating that into a professional vocation and a passion for writing.
Markets through scientific innovation eventually helped to vastly improve my health through drug therapy. Pharmaceutical companies often receive negative flak or derisive rhetorical arrows from politicians, but investment in drug research transformed my health and, in turn, my life for the better. Healing comes in various forms, and markets are proving to be an invaluable tool for many who suffer from chronic illnesses and other physical limitations.
I bought a home in 2015 and my wife is expecting a third son in October. Markets offer an opportunity to plan and rectify the past. My gratitude for the market is robust. Markets have literally transformed my life and billions around the world. The free market continually rewards human production and hard work. The ability to create and the force that emanates from all that intellectual dynamism is a reminder that wealth is not just made through the land, physical property, or the material world. Wealth is human capital and potential, too. Wealth is not a fixed pie, as the statist so often proclaims.
Humans are created with a purpose, and markets empower us to flourish 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. That kind of thinking creeps into our politics when leaders talk about scarcity instead of abundance, leading the populace to fight over the table scraps offered up by the government or a dictatorial strongman.
At the end of the Cold War, many assumed the planned economy was destined for a permanent retreat, and freedom in all avenues of life was destined to ascend. Yet, markets or even an entire republic untethered to truth and virtue faces threats that are not merely external. When qualities like civic virtue diminish, it impacts not just markets but the whole trajectory of ordered liberty.
Free markets are worth defending not only because they pull millions out of poverty and make lives easier, but because they uplift human nature and call forth previously untapped spiritual energy and creativity. Additionally, utilitarian arguments for market-capitalism are only a minor benefit to the whole when they are not properly viewed and oriented within a moral framework.
When I recall all the jets and weapons on 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 free people’s creativity is unmatched worldwide. Markets play a vital role in that truth. We are a nation that stormed beaches, liberated continents, and freed those enslaved under communism. The market economy constantly affirms the way of life we defend, and freedom is not only worth practicing, but something we should all continually celebrate.
Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor and a research fellow at the John Locke Foundation.
This essay first appeared in the October / November print edition of Carolina Journal.