02 January 2017

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition - Trump's Promise to End Religious Freedom

The West led progress for centuries. Not because of superior genes but because of superior memes. The social inventions that have transformed Western Civilization since about 1300 have made lives longer, happier, and more free.

Three big transformations have given individuals in the West freedoms that created this prosperity. The first of the major transformations was religious. In 1300, the church defined orthodoxy - proper belief. Today the individual has religious freedom. Religion went from something society imposed on the individual to something individuals freely chose, rejected or modified. In 1700, you were a subject of the king or queen in your country. Today the individual chooses who will rule and even votes directly on laws. In 1900, private banks controlled money. Today access to investment and credit markets is widespread and monetary policy is managed by a public agency, capital markets subordinate to labor markets and unemployment rates.

Freedom of religion, democracy, and the pursuit of the American Dream - as we now refer to the products of these three revolutions - have indisputably made life better. In the Fourth Economy I argue that doing to the corporation what past revolutions have done to the church, state, and bank is the next big transformation that will dramatically improve life again. (Or more accurately, continue the dramatic improvement of life that has been playing out for centuries.)  Progress stalls when we fail to take the next step; disaster strikes when we go backwards.

One of the reasons I'm so utterly baffled and angry at the fact that my fellow Americans elected Trump is that he promises to take us backwards. Not just a little. He promises to take us backwards by centuries. He promises a religious test for admission to this country, curtailing the freedom of religion guaranteed in this first amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Freedom of religion is foundational to everything we enjoy in the West. For so many reasons.

First the obvious. People believe weird things. Yes, even you. You can kill people with weird beliefs in an attempt to rid the world of improper beliefs but believing that you can kill off all the people with weird beliefs is, itself, one of the weirder beliefs. Plus, even when you take measures that drastic, people with weird beliefs keep popping up. It is simply impossible to live peaceably with fellow humans if you believe that you can or should control their beliefs.

John Locke who defined the modern
separation of church and state.
In the century before our founding fathers defined our new country, Europe was devastated by the thirty years' war, a war with 8 million casualties at a time when Europe's population was about one-tenth what it is today. No war had killed off more of Europe's population. No war involving so many could ever be about just one thing but this war was mostly about religion. With such atrocities in mind, our founding fathers were committed to creating a country where religious freedom not only allowed people to live in good conscience (however weird their beliefs) but saved people from violence because of religious beliefs.

As it turns out, religious freedom is also great for invention and entrepreneurship. Innovation comes from thinking differently, from challenging norms and jettisoning tradition - things that no religion advocates. It wasn't just freedom of religion that our founding fathers granted. It was freedom of thought. You can't really separate those two because beliefs and thoughts are so intermingled they're effectively the same thing. Communities that have imposed no special beliefs on their people are the ones where invention and disruptive change have thrived and lives have improved.

In about two weeks we will swear in a new president who believes that Congress shall make a law disrespecting the free exercise of religion, banning Muslims from entry to the country.

Trump represents a reversal of the three revolutions that have brought us out of the Dark Ages. His minions are fans of the gold standard and gutting the Federal Reserve, essentially making capital scarce again and turning control of credit markets to private banks. He is contemptuous of the workings of democracy, denouncing it as rigged and cooperating with a foreign dictator to win the election. He denounces the free press, suggesting that we need to crack down more on critical journalists in the same way that Putin has, while praising fake news and suggesting that the National Enquirer deserves a Pulitzer. And as if it's not enough to reverse the revolutions of the 20th and 18th centuries, he wants to take us back even further to the 17th century and the time of the thirty years war when religious freedom was not trusted to individuals.

It is hard to over-state how far back into the bowels of history Trump's policies take us. He is a troglodyte who even our bewigged forefathers would look on as anachronistic.

Won't you at least give Trump a chance, friends have asked. A chance for what? To end religious freedom? To gut the people's ability to stabilize credit markets and make financial markets accessible to common people? To gloss over foreign powers' interference in our democracy? (And this doesn't even touch on his disdain for freedom of trade, another pillar of prosperity that inspired the Declaration of Independence but was not captured in the Bill of Rights.)

In my mind, the real question of how to make progress is a question of how to popularize entrepreneurship and that involves changing the definition of employee to someone who has the same sort of freedom within a corporation that a citizen has within a country. Few people believe this (it's a weird belief) but the number who do is growing. To the extent that we delay dealing with this issue, we delay putting median income growth on a path that ensures that each generation will do better than the last.  Freedom of work is a step forward and failing to address it is the one of the biggest reasons that median income growth has floundered in this century.

Not taking this step forward means stagnation. Reversing freedom of religion is, by contrast, a huge step backwards. It's almost comical that in this - 2016 - we would be considering such a move, much less have elected a man who has made it his policy.

How do I feel about 2017? I'm in disbelief that we - as a country - have gone medieval on religious belief, making proper religion a basis for acceptance within our community. I'm in disbelief but as Monty Python warned us, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."

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