Economics 101 & Public Square

Washington’s “Vine and Fig Tree” Points to a Biblical View of Economic Freedom

Not only shorthand for his beloved Mount Vernon, but also a metaphor for freedom and more specifically, economic freedom
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Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. — Isaiah 1:17

According to a 2015 World Bank report, more people have climbed out of abject poverty in the last 25 years than in all of the rest of the history of the world combined. If this trend continues, we will see extreme poverty almost completely eradicated by the middle of the 21st century.

This historic economic movement was not the result of government redistribution of wealth, the United Nations’ national debt forgiveness, or even Christian charity. It was brought about by the spread of economic freedom.

We have written a lot about poverty and flourishing here at IFWE. It is clear from scripture that, as believers, we should be concerned with poverty. It is also clear from the latest data that the best way to alleviate poverty is by promoting economic freedom. But should our concern for the poor go beyond economic flourishing?

Kathryn Feliciano addresses this idea in IFWE’s newest booklet Love Your Neighbor, she writes:

…aiming for flourishing does mean our poverty alleviation goal goes beyond helping the poor materially. Flourishing looks like hope in Christ, dignity in knowing that we were made in the image of God, the fulfillment that comes from work and taking care of your family, and joy in meaningful relationships, especially with our Creator. Biblical flourishing will always be incomplete in this world, for full flourishing will only be realized with the second coming of Christ. However incomplete our efforts, our goal for fighting poverty should be in line with this vision.

While we realize that economic freedom does not single-handedly solve the problem of poverty, creating environments where there is more economic freedom is essential for reducing poverty around the world.

What is Economic Freedom?

Economic freedom has been defined as “the right of individuals to pursue their interests through voluntary exchange of private property under rule of law”—an idea rooted in the fundamental laws and principles laid out in scripture. Economist Anne Bradley explains how this environment can be created and expanded through what she calls the five pillars of economic freedom:

    1. The size of government: Government stays small relative to the size of the economy. Government also plays a very important role in supporting the other four pillars.
    2. The rule of law: You and your property are protected by an impartial rule of law.
    3. Sound money: Your money keeps its value because your national currency is stable.
    4. Freedom to trade: You are free to trade with others for what you need and want.
    5. Limited regulations: Regulations should be held to a minimum and kept from being hijacked by those with powerful, special interests.

Countries with greater economic freedom have higher incomes (even among the poor), greater happiness, better-protected civil rights, cleaner environments, and higher life expectancy. They also have less corruption, lower infant mortality rates, less child labor, and lower rates of unemployment.

This idea of the importance of economic freedom is not new to the United States and the need for it was clearly understood by the founding fathers. Daniel Dreisbach, in his new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, writes of how George Washington in his speeches and letters often (almost 50 times) alluded to Micah 4:4:

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it.

Washington used this picture of “the vine and fig tree” not only as shorthand for his beloved home in Mount Vernon, but also as a metaphor for freedom and more specifically, economic freedom. Dreisbach writes:

The first president looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for a favored blessing and made it his own. The ancient blessing of Micah 4:4 embraced the multiple facets of Washington’s life. It encapsulated enduring political principles of civility, rule of law, limited government and property rights.

And it wasn’t only Washington who held this view. The late historian Pauline Maier in describing the Declaration of Independence’s memorable phrase, “the pursuit of Happiness,” wrote the following:

For Jefferson and his contemporaries, happiness no doubt demanded safety or security, which would have been in keeping with the biblical phrase one colonist after another used to describe the good life—to be at peace under their vine and fig tree with none to make them afraid.

They may not have used the same terminology, but the founding fathers created a nation that would flourish because of this foundational idea of economic freedom, which included the rule of law, limited government, and property rights. And then they exported it around the world.

In the opening chapters of the book of Micah, the prophet paints a beautiful picture of the New Jerusalem located in a new heaven and new earth, where every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree and they all will live without fear or want. This is a picture of the fulfillment of Christ’s redemption when he comes to earth again.

Between now and then, it is the work of our hands to give all those we touch a glimpse, a taste of that coming reality. To bring flourishing to God’s creation and especially to those who are trapped in the grip of poverty. To do this, we need to promote this biblical idea of economic freedom in our communities, our nation, and around the world.

Editor’s Note: We are saddened at the recent passing of a friend and incredible advocate for human flourishing, Michael Novak. Our prayers are with his family. In his honor, we are making his IFWE booklet, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: Thirty Years Later (Digital) available for free for a limited time.

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