We at Acton have been among the loudest critics of clergy and other religious leaders who undermine economic freedom (and therefore prosperity, including for the poor) by advocating more extensive government intervention in economic affairs.
So we should be the first to applaud when clerics strike a blow for freedom. Kudos to the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana.
Monasteries may seem an unlikely venue for capitalist ferment, but in fact they hold an important place in the history of economic development in the West. In the medieval period, for example, they were centers of industrial activity, such as milling and tanning.
The monastic tradition’s insistence on self-sufficiency continues, spurring contemporary marketing of monkish products from coffee to chocolate to … caskets.
It’s the coffin business that got St. Joseph’s in trouble. By selling its pine boxes without a funeral director’s license, the monastery violates state law. So the abbey is suing the State of Louisiana in federal court.
It’s a classic case of what economists call “barriers to entry”: regulations put in place by existing businesses or professionals to limit competition and thereby drive up prices and compensation. Usually the vested interest posits some rationale concerning the public good (e.g., not just anybody should be allowed to practice medicine…), but frequently enough the reasoning is pretty thin (e.g., should you really need a license to cut hair or drive a taxi?).
The negative consequences of such barriers are the same as those attending any artificial limiting of competition: inflated prices, deflated supply, decreased employment opportunities for those who need them most (those who cannot afford the fees or tuition associated with credentialing and licensing).
Thus, Abbot Justin Brown, in words that might warm the heart of Frederic Bastiat, Adam Smith, or Milton Friedman:
We have not taken this step lightly, but it is one of our Constitution’s many great virtues that it protects economic liberty so that everyone — even monks — can earn an honest living through the labor of their own hands.