Overcoming a false understanding of freedom

As America secularizes, a false understanding of freedom is becoming increasingly pervasive in public life. Two current issues being considered by the Legislature — payday lending reforms (HF 2293/SF 2368) and the legalization of a commercial surrogacy business (HF 291/SF 2627) — provide an opportunity to examine the social ramifications of this newfound “freedom.”

Under the hegemony of this false understanding of freedom, what is good is no longer measured by what is true or just, but instead by the subjective preferences of consenting adults. When we don’t understand and live our relationships based on the values of charity, gratuitousness and service, we fall into another set of values rooted in self-interest and the utility of another person as a means to achieve that desire.

Desires become “needs” and needs are framed as “rights.” And, in such a world, everything — including human beings — can be bought and sold.

Erosion of right and wrong

We have lost the vocabulary to think and speak in a manner consistent with a Judeo-Christian understanding of society.

Without an objective standard of what is good and evil, or right and wrong, politics becomes focused on the maximization of individual or group preferences — particularly preferences of the individuals and groups who have money and access to politicians.

Unjust economic arrangements and activities are defended because they are the products of a “free market,” where, because there is a “willing” buyer and seller, there is nothing inherently wrong or unjust about the transaction. Similarly, other social arrangements once thought unimaginable for many reasons are now justified because people freely “choose” to enter into them.

This dynamic is playing out increasingly in the public arena, and is not confined to the political “right” or “left.” It is both irrational and corrodes our political culture by often allowing the loudest voice to prevail, not necessarily the voices with the best arguments.

‘Consent’ now the measure of the good?

Payday loans are a form of usury, narrowly defined as the sin of extracting high rates of interest on a loan to someone in difficult financial circumstances. They are both sinful and have the potential to entrench poverty.

Moreover, as popes have pointed out for centuries, they are bad economics because they drive capital into unproductive loans that merely enrich the lender.

Advocates for payday lending reform have proposed reasonable legislation that would, among other things, cap the number of payday loans a person could take out in a given year, impose underwriting standards that would help ensure that these loans do not drive people further into a debt trap, and force payday lenders to operate under the same interest rate caps as other institutions.

The legislation allows access to quick lines of credit for people to bridge temporary finance gaps, but ensures that payday loans do not become a regularly relied upon source of money that drives people deeper into a debt trap as they rack up huge fees. This common scenario affects not just one person’s finances but the broader society, and especially families, as people are driven deeper into poverty.

Payday lenders claim that the regulations proposed will put them out of business and that there is no need of regulation because people desire their services. They claim that they are just providing what customers want and that we should just allow the “free market” to operate — and just work on prosecuting the truly bad actors.

Sound familiar? Consent is cited as the standard of the good and the social impact of this legislation is ignored because we have to let the logic of the “free market” prevail.

‘Choice’ enough to ignore the commodification of women and children?

The attempt to legalize a commercial surrogacy market in Minnesota is another example of “choice” and “freedom” dominating the debate at the expense of broader social values.

The presence of a person or couple who seeks a child, along with a surrogate mother willing to carry it to term, somehow makes this OK.

But what about the data that show that, among surrogates, it is women who have lost children or who have suffered sexual abuse who are overrepresented among surrogate carriers? Or, that surrogacy has significant health and psychological risks for the surrogate mother and the child? Or, that surrogacy is, in many places, exploitative of the poor and vulnerable?

What of the cultural and social effects of commodifying women and children, treating them as products to be bought and sold in what strongly resembles human trafficking?

The Legislature continues to refuse to look deeply into these questions. The underlying rationale for their inaction is that surrogacy is just a “contract” governing “property interests” that should be honored in our courts.

One legislator went as far as to say — in refusing to pull the bill into the Senate health policy committee for review — that “we cannot look at the health implications of every contract.”

But, in fact, regulating the transactions and associations that people make so that they serve human dignity and the common good (the state’s “police power”) is one of the Legislature’s main responsibilities.

Structures of sin

As Pope Benedict said, echoing Pope John Paul II, “Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in education, politics, social action, and morals” (“Caritas in Veritate,” 34).

Such ignorance will only lead people and societies to further abuse the economic process and human persons in a destructive manner.

There will be no “civilization of love” without the affirmation of God as loving Father whose laws and limitations are the true means of liberation and security.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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