In Praise of Commercial Culture
Brian Gongol

If there is hope for freedom and decency in the world, it is in secular commercial culture. Religions and the religious especially should sing the praises of secular commercial cultures, for they especially benefit.

Whether America is a "Christian" Nation Doesn't Fundamentally Matter to Our Freedoms

If this seems counter-intuitive, it's no surprise. We're told quite loudly and often that America is a Christian nation, strong and successful (according to half of the population) only because it has been especially blessed with the Judeo-Christian tradition. But the real blessing of the American way is one that atheists or Buddhists can share just as surely as the most devout evangelical Christian.

The Declaration of Independence says that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." That everyone possesses those rights is "self-evident"; that those rights are "endowed by their Creator" is not a statement that the God of Abraham chose this particular people to have those rights, but is instead an acclamation that all individuals have rights which are greater than those of the state.

Our Freedoms, Which Are Our Greatest Asset, Are Culturally Independent

The Founding Fathers were certainly aware of cultures and religions other than their own. Trade with China, India, Africa, and other parts of the world either took them there in person or simply made them aware that they existed. We should be thankful. If they were certain that only a group of Christians in some small British colonies were capable of self-government, they could have said so. But they instead appealed to the world that "all men" had those rights.

That is the real blessing: That certain rights exist for all people, prior to and in primacy over whatever powers or authorities claimed by any government.

What, then, does secular commercial culture have to do with those rights?

Simply this: The American experiment doesn't require Americans, American religions, American language, or American habits in order to work. All it needs is a small dose of commerce, some time, and some ordinary human ingenuity.

Commerce Proves that Our Freedoms Exist Everywhere

Voluntary trade is a remarkable thing: One individual exchanges with another, each for something he or she finds more valuable than what they gave up. Both parties in the exchange -- when it's voluntary -- are happier and better off as a result. It's really and truly something for nothing: More happiness, and nothing was lost or destroyed -- it was only traded.

But hidden beneath voluntary trade is a powerful philosophical conclusion: That each person owns his or her self and the things that he or she does.

What's the logic? If I can freely exchange something I own with you, that means I must own whatever it is that I give. If I own it, then I must also own what it takes to make it mine; that is, I own my own work. If I own my own work, then I must own what I do with my time and my skills. If I own those things, that means I own my thoughts and my mind as well.

And that's exactly it. That is the sum total of everything that I have to do in order to realize and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I have ownership of my personal rights. From this, everything else -- freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion -- is just a matter of particulars.

Commercial Rights Prove Individual Rights, Making the Way Safe for Religion

The powerful conclusion is this: If we really believe that all people have inalienable rights (like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), then we should believe that those exist no matter what the person's race, religion, or culture. And the surest way to prove that fact is to prove their self-ownership, which is itself most easily accomplished by participating in voluntary exchange.

The conclusion transcends religion without in any way harming or negating it. In fact, religion can thrive in this environment. Religion needs religious freedom in order to survive, and religious freedom comes from that very same wellspring as freedom of speech or assembly -- the individual's right to own one's self.

In Order to Get a Free, Peaceful World, We Have to Start with Voluntary Commerce

In the long run, if people are to be free, then the surest way to free them is to engage them in commercial culture -- voluntary, free exchange among individuals. Once they have that opportunity, the chain of logic that takes them back to realizing their other individual freedoms is very short. If we start from other directions -- say, by trying to impose a religious conversion on an entire nation -- we're trying to prove the existence of those rights by going backwards. Those rights come from self-ownership, not the reverse.

The best hope for peace and prosperity in the world is one in which the American experiment is duplicated everywhere. China could be a free nation without being Christian -- but they won't be until the people realize their self-ownership (instead of the state's ownership of them). The former Soviet satellite states who were stripped of their rights to religion found that once they took up commercial culture, they became not only healthy and vibrant, but also free once again to undertake religion of their own will.

Our Prayer Should Be for Commerce

The American experiment is not great because of some religion. America is great because it is free to have religion, just as it is free to not have religion. It has those freedoms because its people are engaged in commerce and realize that all of their rights come from the same self-ownership that is most self-evident when we engage in voluntary trade.

If we are to pray, let us pray that commerce becomes our evangelistic angel.