Critics of contemporary economics complain that belief in free markets – among economists as well as many ordinary citizens – is a form of religion. Benjamin M. Friedman argues that there is something to this idea, but in a deeper, more historically grounded sense. Contrary to the conventional historical view of economics as an entirely secular product of the Enlightenment, in his newest book, Friedman demonstrates that religion exerted a powerful influence from the outset. He makes clear how the foundational transition in thinking about what we now call economics, beginning in the eighteenth century, was decisively shaped by what were then hotly contended lines of religious thought within the English-speaking Protestant world. Beliefs about God-given human character, about the afterlife, and about the purpose of our existence, were all under scrutiny in the world in which Adam Smith and his contemporaries lived. Friedman also explores how the resulting influences of religious thinking on economic thinking help to explain the sometimes puzzling stance of so many Americans whose views about economic policies, and whose voting behavior, often seem sharply at odds with what would be to their own economic benefit.
Friedman’s new book is a major reassessment of the foundations of modern economic thinking. At the American Academy in Berlin event, he discussed how religious thinking has shaped economic thinking ever since the beginnings of modern Western economics. In addition, in light of the fact that the United States has just concluded a historic national election and transfer of power, he focused on how these religious influences continue to shape America’s current-day debate over economic policy.