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Friday, December 05, 2014


Religion and Economic Freedom

Many religions devote large amounts of literature and knowledge towards the ideas of loving each other, doing kind things, and being a better person through acts of altruism. For many, concepts such as altruism, sharing, and never consuming above one's means are foreign concepts to the proponent of capitalism. This logic seems to fit for it can only be described as a grand hypocrisy to promote a system of self-interest while claiming your religious faith is to follow the ideas of selflessness.

On his nationally-recognized show The Colbert Report comedian Stephen Colbert claims, "Because if this is gonna be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we've got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then we admit that we just don't wanna do it." Obviously, it would be silly to take the words of a comedian, who is known for his satire, too seriously, but it does bring up an interesting philosophical question: can religious ideals and economic freedom coexist?

Perhaps, they cannot. As I explained above, a society promoting self-interest seems to be inherently selfish, but this is not the whole story, and anyone who claims this logic is missing a few key notions on freedom and giving. George Price was a brilliant mathematician who proved that altruism was an evolutionary concept; his theory eventually drove him to madness and suicide. His theory stated that the only reason we act altruistically is to benefit ourselves in the long run. This is not as crazy as it may seem. Any economist knows the goal of consumption is to maximize utility. Consumption requires a cost to be paid, and such a cost is paid in order to fulfill the goal of being happy. This logic may hint that altruism many not be as altruistic as we previously thought. If we are acting in our own self-interest when we give, are we really being selfless?

Furthermore, the opponent of laissez-faire capitalism who claims religious morals conflict with capitalist ideals misunderstands what giving is. The act of giving, which for our purposes we are defining as an altruistic action, is the voluntarily allocation of one's resources to another at no cost to the recipient. It is not an act of altruism to propose a tax hike in favor of giving to the needy, nor is it an act of altruism to pay one's taxes so long as the tax money is used for the public good. These acts are not voluntary, so they are not acts of altruism. Only acts done through voluntary means can be considered altruistic so long as they adhere to the definition of giving. In fact, we can argue that the forceful allocation of resources from one to another on the basis that the other is impoverished is an act of great selfishness. An action can only be considered altruistic if the resources given belonged to the giver.  

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