Economic Freedom and the Path to Flourishing
This paper was co-authored by Anne Bradley, Ph.D. and Joseph Connors, Ph.D.
Download the full paper at the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics
“The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
planted in the house of the LORD,
they will flourish in the courts of our God.” –Psalm 92:12-13
The concept of shalom appears throughout the Bible. It describes the way things were before the Fall and it is the way things will be after Christ returns. Christians are to work toward Christ’s restoration of this fallen world, and this involves striving toward flourishing for themselves and others as they live their lives. There is a strong correlation between economic freedom and human flourishing, showing Christians how economic wellbeing can help them achieve flourishing at all levels.
The Path to Flourishing
In the Old Testament, the concept of flourishing is best described by the Jewish word shalom. Biblical scholars note that shalom signifies a number of things, including salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness, righteousness, justice, and well-being.1
Shalom denotes a right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s good creation. It is the way God intended things to be when he created the universe.
Most English Bibles translate shalom as “peace,” but it means much more than just an absence of conflict. The idea of flourishing as shalom in the widest sense of the word is a significant theme in the Old Testament:
- When the Lord brings shalom, there is prosperity.2
- There is health.3
- There is reconciliation.4
- There is contentment.5
- When the shalom of the Lord is present, there are good relationships between the nations and peoples.6 God’s shalom has a social as well as a personal dimension.
Shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. It is the way things ought to be. The Old Testament prophets pictured shalom as the wolf living with the lamb, weapons turned into farming tools, deserts blooming, and the mountains streaming with red wine.7
The Bible reveals that full shalom awaits God’s people at the end of this age, in the last chapter of redemptive history when Christ returns to consummate his kingdom.8 In the meantime, Christians are called to work toward shalom while they await the return of Christ. This working towards shalom can be described as flourishing. Social psychologist Barbara Frederickson describes this concept of flourishing in her book Positivity:
People who flourish function at extraordinarily high levels – both psychologically and socially. They’re not simply people who feel good. Flourishing goes beyond happiness, or satisfaction with life. Beyond feeling good, they’re also doing good…People who flourish are highly engaged with their families, work, and communities. They’re driven by a sense of purpose: they know why they get up in the morning.9
This idea of flourishing goes beyond just physical well-being. People flourish when their lives have meaning and purpose. They flourish when they routinely experience optimism, hope, and gratitude. They flourish when they make a positive impact on others through their work.
This meaning of flourishing stems from the awareness that the lives of individuals are part of the larger story told in the Bible. Finding their place in this narrative helps them to realize that they are connected to creation and humanity in fundamental ways that allow them to truly understand their purpose and calling.
When we honor God, serve the common good, and further the kingdom of God through our work, we enable flourishing. God wants his people to flourish in this present age, so that they might offer those around us a picture of the way things could be.
This notion of flourishing is one that Christians have a strong heritage of upholding, especially regarding the promotion of human freedom. The Magna Carta signified the beginning of the political recognition of the rights and freedoms of the individual. The authors of this great charter understood the relationship between the biblical notion of flourishing and freedom.
In the preamble of the reaffirmation of the charter, written in 1297 A.D., the barons of England desired more freedom “for the health of our soul and the souls of our ancestors and heirs, for the exaltation of holy Church and the better ordering of our kingdom.”10 Here, the Old Testament notion of flourishing comes through in the desire to live as free people. The original charter, written in 1215 A.D., emphasized how this was to be achieved, namely, “that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”11 The very first clause of the charter did not end with the freedom of the clergy. The authors believed all free men of the kingdom were also to be granted “all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs.”12
The Magna Carta illustrates that the promotion of flourishing and freedom is an integral part of our Christian heritage. Today, God calls Christians to continue this work and promote the flourishing of all people through the protection of their freedom.13 To do this, Christians must examine and understand the specific economic constraints that either foster or impede this flourishing.
What Does Flourishing Look Like?
How do we know that we are approaching greater levels or degrees of flourishing here on our earthly journey? One way is to look at the world around us and to understand how we are doing as stewards. Recall Barbara Fredrickson’s description of flourishing: It is not just about feeling good, but about doing good. How do we know that we are doing good? Part of this is fulfilling our call in the creation mandate to be good stewards of the earth. Being a good steward goes beyond maintaining God’s good creation. We are called to multiply and leave more than what we started with.
Stewardship then means making the best use out of the scarce resources with which God has entrusted us. These include material resources and our human capital, such as our talents, energy, gifts, and skills. Countries and societies that foster good stewardship and creativity and harness each person’s God-given purpose are ones that have higher degrees of flourishing among their people.
Economics is a tool that God has given people to better understand the ramifications of their decisions and to help us engage in long-term thinking—thus helping us to be better stewards. Using economics, Christians can gain a better understanding of the factors that allow them to be better stewards. They can do this in an objective manner using data on the characteristics associated with flourishing. The analysis indicates that the ability of people to be economically free is what defines good stewardship and flourishing. This suggests that economic freedom is an objective measure of how individuals are doing as stewards. It serves as a benchmark of current levels of flourishing, how each society compares to others, and what people can do to help those who are suffering.
The Economic Freedom of the World Project of the Fraser Institute uses five categories to construct an annual index of overall prosperity and flourishing, and economic freedom for 141 countries.14 The report, authored by James Gwartney, Joshua Hall, and Robert Lawson, assesses the degree to which the laws and institutions of these countries protect the abilities of people to open businesses, pursue work, and exercise their creativity in ways they see fit. These opportunities, in turn, lead to greater overall prosperity for that society.
There are many reasons that Christians should understand what economic freedom is, and work to promote greater flourishing for everyone by making advances in those freedoms. Before we dive into what economic freedom is, however, an examination of its results will prove helpful. For Christians, economic freedom is not an end in and of itself; it is a means to the end of bringing about shalom. The Index of Economic Freedom put out by the Fraser Institute is powerfully correlated with many things that Christians need to create and spread flourishing. In addition, it is negatively-correlated with things that do not improve human well-being.
Economic freedom strongly influences many characteristics of flourishing. The figures shown here are just a sampling, but they represent some of the important aspects of examples of flourishing today. They also illustrate the outcomes of when a country embraces the rules and institutions that support a high degree of economic freedom.
1 Hugh Whelchel, How Then Should We Work? (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2012), 94.
2 Ps. 72:1-7, NIV.
3 Isa. 57:19.
4 Gen. 26:29.
5 Gen. 15:15, Ps. 4:8.
6 I Chron. 12:17-18.
7 Isa. 2:4, 11:6, Ezek. 36:35, Am. 9:13
8 Isa. 9:11.
9 Barbara L. Frederickson, “Positivity (New York, NY: Random House, 2009), 17.
10 British Library, “The Magna Carta,” accessed June 1, 2013, http://www.bl.uk/treasures/magnacarta/translation/mc_trans.html.
13 Eccl. 5:19; Acts 20:35.
14 The Frasier Institute is an independent Canadian research and educational organization which studies the effects of markets and governments on individual welfare.