Freethinking Economics

James Bruce Commentary

Freethinking Economics

Here’s a trivia question for those who followed President Trump’s reception of his Chinese counterpart at Mar-a-Lago: How many of the world’s most recognizable brands started in China? The answer: Exactly zero.

According to Interbrand’s latest report on best global brands, Apple, Google and Coca-Cola head the list. If you listed those brands by geography instead of by name, that’d be California, California and Georgia.

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Of course, the United States does not have exclusive rights to the world’s most recognizable brands. Think Mercedes-Benz or Louis Vuitton. And not all brands are old: Henry Ford started making cars more than a hundred years ago, but Amazon is less than 25 years old. Not all brands are Western, either: Toyota and Samsung — that is, Japan and South Korea — both make Interbrand’s top 10.

So what do the United States, Germany and France — but also Japan and South Korea — have that China doesn’t? These nations tolerate freethinking, and China does not. Freethinking sometimes carries with it an assumption of atheism, but I’m not using it in that way; after all, atheists can be as closed-minded as the rest of us.

Indeed, some of the most influential freethinkers have been profoundly religious. In “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” his incredible essay in the American Political Science Review, Robert D. Woodberry shows how the presence or absence of “conversionary Protestants” — people we’d call evangelicals — explains significantly the rise of democracies worldwide.

“Religious beliefs and institutions matter,” he concludes. “What we consider modernity was not the inevitable result of economic development, urbanization, industrialization, secularization, or the Enlightenment, but a far more contingent process profoundly shaped by activist religion.”

The United Arab Emirates — a federation of absolute monarchies — offers a case in point. The UAE boasts a New York University campus but forbids Muslim citizens from choosing another religion, or no religion at all. If Woodberry is right, don’t look to the UAE for the next global brand. Societies need more than imported American research universities. They need freethinkers.

And that’s one obvious test for freethinking: How do people handle religious beliefs outside the mainstream? Shintoism and Buddhism are the majority religions in Japan, but Japan has had several Christian prime ministers — along with, unsurprisingly, world-class companies like Toyota, Honda and Sony.

There’s a pattern here. Religious liberty and economic flourishing go hand in hand. Religious intolerance and economic flourishing don’t. That makes sense: If you can’t practice your religion in your living room, why do you think you can start building computers in your garage?

And so we come to Arkansas: Let’s make sure the citizens of this state can voice opinions out of step with our cultural consensus on hot-button issues and be unafraid of state action against them. Now, they may annoy their neighbors, some of whom may be their clients or their customers. So they may lose revenue, as people decide they don’t want to shop there.

But it’s one thing to fear failure in the marketplace; it’s another thing to fear a knock at the door. This February the Washington State Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, said Barronelle Stutzman, a florist, should have prepared flowers for a gay marriage, despite her religious beliefs. The state attorney general personally argued the state’s case against her. Whatever you think of the technicalities of Arkansas’ attempt to localize the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, there’s something to be said for limiting the power of the state to check people’s religious beliefs.

It’s most important when you find a person’s position most offensive.

Notice the argument here isn’t constitutional, but economic: Let freethinkers flourish in a state whose nickname used to be the Land of Opportunity. Freethinkers don’t always wear skinny jeans, leather jackets and smoke unfiltered cigarettes.

Sometimes they’re old Christian women. But they have businesses, too, and we should let them keep them.

James Bruce is an associate professor of philosophy at John Brown University in Siloam Springs. Email him at