economics and christian desire: freedom and unfreedom.

I’ve just begun reading William T. Cavanaugh’s latest book, Being Consumed. Cavanaugh begins by stating that those Christians who understand that what we do with our money and our stuff  “should be directly informed by how we relate to God,” often remain in a reactive posture towards economics. In other words, we tend to take current economic realities as givens and then figure out what our stance ought to be on these givens. However, Cavanaugh argues that, “Christians themselves are called to create concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space—the space marked by the body of Christ,” (Cavanaugh, viii).

In the first chapter, ‘Freedom and Unfreedom’, Cavanaugh argues against Milton Friedmans idea that transactions are free insofar as they are “bi-laterally voluntary and informed,” and free from external coercion (Cavanaugh, 2). In other words, the typical idea of freedom is pursuing whatever you want without interference from others. However, as Cavanaugh points out, Augustine (where Cavanaugh gets most of his argument from in the opening chapter) has a much more complex view of freedom. Freedom, “is not simply a negative freedom from, but a freedom for, a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile goals. All of those goals are taken up into the one overriding telos of human life, the return to God,” (Cavanaugh, 7-8). Therefore, freedom is about being wrapped up in the will of God, the condition of human freedom. Autonomy has no place here.

So, freedom isn’t simple freedom from something, but it is freedom for something. This for, this telos of all human life, is our return to God where all of humanity will flourish. Coming back to desire, there is such thing as true desires and false desires. We all know this. We all know what it’s like to really desire something and then find out that it is an empty desire. We desire loads of things, however, our one true desire is for God. When surrounded by a sea of desire we need a telos (or an end) to tell the difference between true and false desires. This telos, as stated, is our return to God where all of humanity will flourish. This will inform our decisions and enable us to tell the difference between true and false desire. If a desire leads towards the flourishing of humanity then it is a good and right desire. However, if not, then the desire ought to be regarded as false. We need to know whether our will is moved toward a good end or not. “The key to true freedom is not just following whatever desires we happen to have, but cultivating the right desires,” (Cavanaugh, 11).

We must ask ourselves why we desire. Desiring with no good other than desire itself is to desire arbitrarily. “To desire with no telos, no connection to the objective end of desire, is to desire nothing and to become nothing,” (Cavanaugh, 14). In other words, sometimes we have urges to desire things at the bottom end of the scale of good, and in so doing we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is God, his law and his truth, (Augustine, Confessions, p.30). Cavanaugh gives the following example: In America, an addiction to shopping claims more than 10% of the population, and 20% of women (more than drugs and alcohol combined). A person buys something trying to fill the hole “and once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing, and she has to head back to the mall to continue the search. With no objective ends to guide the search, her search is literally endless,” (Cavanaugh, 15).

Augustine argues for objective ends to guide our will, so who is to say what those ends are? We must know that some goods are objectively better than other goods or the movement of our will can only be arbitrary. For the majority of the population it is marketing/advertising or large corporations that guides their wills. This is unfair because there is an imbalance of power here between the marketer and the consumer (Thereby ruling the exchange unfree, even by Friedman’s standards). You can see the problems that arise here. However, what ought to guide our wills is a positive view of freedom that takes into account the good ends of human life.

Finally, there is a link between property and freedom. Aquinas argues that the ownership of property is natural to human beings and allows them to develop their own capacities. Hilaire Belloc argues that property is thus essential to human freedom, however, he does not argue that the ownership of property is about power, rather, that property has an end, which is to serve the common good (Cavanaugh, 29). As Aquinas argues, the universal destination of all material goods is in God. We should regard property as a gift from God, a gift that is only valid if we use it for the benefit of others. Thus, Aquinas sanctions private ownership only insofar as it is put to its proper end, which is the good of all: “Man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need,” (Aquinas, Summa, II-II.66.2).

So, as we make exchanges that we call free, let us call to account a truer understanding of freedom. Do our exchanges lead towards the flourishing of life on earth? I leave you with these two quotes:

“The key point is that the freedom of each economic exchange is subject to judgment based on a positive account of freedom, which must take into account the good ends of human life,” (Cavanaugh, 26).

“What is most important is the direct embodiment of free economic practices. From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place. Those are the spaces in which true freedom can flourish,” (Cavanaugh, 32).

Grace and Peace.



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