While reading Peter Boettke’s wonderful new book “Living Economics,” I was reminded by Boettke of an interesting disagreement between Scottish Enlightenment figures Adam Smith and David Hume. Both Smith and Hume used economic thinking to understand a puzzling phenomenon of their day: Countries with publicly supported religion were less religiously devoted than those in which the church relied on private funds.

Boettke uses this example to illustrate the “value free” nature of economic analysis. Since Hume was a religious skeptic and preferred a less influential church, he argued in support of publicly funded religion. He understood that this would result in a less religious populace and welcomed that result. Smith used the same economic logic but did not share Hume’s negative feelings toward the church, and thus he opposed public support for religion. As Boettke points out, good economic thinking does not tell us what we “ought” to do, it only reveals cause and effect relationships and shows us what the outcome of various policies will be.

Despite their differences of opinion on the preferred outcome, the logic of economics was the same for both men: When the church is publicly supported it becomes less responsive to parishioners and less creative in gaining and retaining new members. When churches had to rely solely on voluntary support, they innovated. Sermons became more interesting to the listeners, facilities were built to meet the needs of attendees, and church leaders more aggressively and creatively looked for ways to show the applicability and value of religion to everyday life. This marketing, innovation and energy resulted in greater “consumption” of religious “goods” than in countries where the state supported the church.

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