Turning Private to Public:

How the First Amendment Can Inspire a Fairer Economy

by Matt Cavedon

One of the most noble, and difficult, tasks of a democratic society is to turn the political efforts of individuals and groups away from seeking their gain at the expense of others, and towards an order which serves everyone. In the wake of the financial crisis, Americans are rightly concerned about wealthy businesses and people mooching off of the government.

To find an alternative to politics as economic warfare, we should look to the Constitution’s protections for religious freedom – they might be our best model for bringing people with disparate interests and priorities together in defense of the common good. Both religious groups and businesses often have competing aims, but the law can encourage them to work with others to defend their shared liberty.

Over the course of the next year, courts will hear challenges to the HHS contraception mandate, claiming that it violates religious liberty. Catholics will be the most closely affected by the ruling, as the Catholic Church is one of the only religious organizations in the country that opposes contraception. Regardless of our fairly unique beliefs about contraception, Catholics are supported by Jews, Evangelical Protestants, and other supporters of religious liberty in asserting our rights. This is true even though some (though not very many) Evangelical Protestants think Catholics are literally hell-bound, and more are trying to attract Catholics to their own churches. Similarly, many American Christians might have doubts about the eternal destinies of followers of Santeria, or practitioners of Native American religions, and have an interest in converting them. But that did not stop Christians from jumping into court battles where members of those minority religions sought to vindicate their First Amendment rights. Why would people be willing to defend others while making appeals to their followers?

The answer is in the Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, and the Fourteenth promises equal protection of the laws. Any gain won for Catholic religious liberty, then, becomes a win for Orthodox Jews. Each law that can protect a pagan can serve as a shield for a Muslim. Because the benefits of good laws are shared among members of different groups, people form coalitions composed of strange bedfellows. The Constitution teaches religious people to set aside their theological competition in favor of liberty that everyone can share. Religious groups still fight their doctrinal battles against one another, but the law becomes a place for American unity.

Unfortunately, the surprising peace among competing groups of religious Americans does not prevail among competing American businesspeople. What Adam Smith wrote in the year of our country’s founding still rings true today: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” Businesspeople do not generally go the courts or to Congress to seek markets where they can compete freely. They go looking for taxpayer money, regulatory loopholes, contract awards, and barriers against their competitors. Rather than uniting together around the common good of economic liberty and fair competition, businesspeople head to Washington to fight the battles they cannot win by providing better goods and services at lower prices.

America’s Constitution has the answer to this problem written in it, too, if the courts are willing to understand and enforce it. After all, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection of the laws, which should mean that protectionist privileges whose sole purpose is to help one business against another should be struck down as unconstitutional class legislation. The Fourteenth Amendment also requires that no one be deprived of their liberty or property without due process of law. What kind of legal process could legitimately lead to rationing out the right to drive people around town for a living, or make lawyers bow before other members of the profession before advising clients?

If the Fourteenth Amendment meant what it says, then government would no longer be a place for businesspeople to go seeking special privileges to gain an edge on their competitors. Just as religious people tend to show up in D.C. supporting broad laws to protect the freedoms of all Americans, even if they argue with each other elsewhere, businesspeople need to have the right incentives to work for the common good of liberty. Rather than letting politics be the continuation of market competition by other means, law would ensure freedom and justice for all.

One Comment

  1. Isn’t it time we stop listening to these polls…Few of us have time to look at detials. for all we know, the question could have been phrased… If having a Christian government meant the continuation of the United States as a nation, would you be in favor?Headline reads… one third favor Shara Law…Second thought. Does any no partisan group really sample non partisan people just out of curiosity over how people would feel about having religion and government combined?Or, is it done by someone on one side of the issue or the other, who wants to use the results for their own personal gain?Most polls are done for someones personal gain.Time to stop taking them seriously…

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