Religious and Economic Liberty Are Intertwined

The massacre in Orlando was a tragic reminder that we’re at war—against hate, against extremism, and against intolerance. Although there are many contributing factors to today’s war on terror, history can show us how political and religious disagreements are far more likely to lead to violence than the ostensibly rapacious arena of business competition. Specifically, if you look at the hundreds of years of religious conflict that Europe once endured, there are some interesting lessons that can be learned about how nations can foster tolerance.

Now-liberal Europe once endured centuries of religious conflict. Voltaire, an early champion of the market economy as well as religious toleration, argued that passions of any sort can lead to violent outcomes. Mankind, he argued, is made for action. The challenge is to transform that energy into the peaceful world of commerce rather than the fierceness of religious and nationalistic conflict. In commerce, people are motivated to empathize with and understand each other, not “save” the other person from false beliefs.

Moreover, Voltaire saw great virtue in religious toleration and the plurality of beliefs in England, long known as “a nation of shopkeepers.” In nations with only one accepted belief system, like Catholic Spain, Inquisitions were too likely. In his native France, two religious traditions tended toward civil war. Only in England, with its multiplicity of religious beliefs, did he find fertile ground for tolerance. He noted that in England (which had its own religious wars earlier), religious rivals treat doctrinal disputes as akin to conflicts between actors in a play. When completed, the actors adjoin to a tavern where they drink together in tranquility.

And that tranquility, to Voltaire, is one of the great virtues of commerce. Peaceful commercial relationships diminish the perceived foreignness of people from different backgrounds, as in this description from his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764:

Enter into the Royal Exchange of London, a place more respectable than many courts, in which deputies from all nations assemble for the advantage of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian bargain with one another as if they were of the same religion, and bestow the name of infidel on bankrupts only … Was there in London but one religion, despotism might be apprehended; if two only, they would seek to cut each other’s throats; but as there are at least thirty, they live together in peace and happiness.

Sadly, while market transactions tend to smooth over sectarian differences, religious and national intolerance still often disrupt business affairs. Bellicose partisans of a particular sect or nation are far more likely to oppose trade in general, and free international trade most of all. There are few win-win outcomes in either religious or national conflicts, leading many people to imagine that economic interactions between tribes are equally one-sided, rather than the mutually advantageous opportunities they really are.

America is still a tolerant land with a mostly free economy. We need to work harder to communicate the value of these beliefs.