Moral Visions of the Free Market
by Glen A. Sproviero
For religious believers, the complicated issue of reconciling the free market with traditional morality is one of increasing importance as the ideology of capitalism gains unprecedented public support and globalization becomes unavoidable. The prospect of material triumph appears omnipresent, and the justifications for advancing the cause of wealth unmoored from traditional notions of the common good are finding allies in unlikely places. In this collection of essays, editors Doug Bandow and David Schindler bring together an eclectic mix of thinkers to discuss the morality of free-market systems. While the essays are not deliberately set in conversation, they naturally form a flowing dialogue.
The poor will always be with us, teach the Gospels, and how governments make policies to minimize, rather than eliminate, the number of people suffering economic hardship is at the center of this debate. Peter Hill’s contribution raises important questions regarding the political inequality which arises from an increase in economic equality. It is only when coercive government policies, restricting the freedoms of its citizens, are put into effect that a forced distribution of income can occur. This requires a drastic reorganization of the social and political infrastructure, and would necessarily result in the concentration of political power. Thus, for Hill, economic leveling is accomplished at the expense of relinquishing political power to a few central planners with almost absolute control. When the rule of law and individual rights are protected, however, economic inequality is almost always the result. To force economic equality upon a culture is to force it to abandon its equality before the courts and its property rights. For Hill, the remedy for poverty does not lie with a radical redistribution of private assets, rather he suggests that the most effective remedy is overall economic growth. Encouraging the creation of new wealth, rather than redistributing what already exists, is the most effective way to battle poverty. However, the production of new wealth necessitates a strong respect for property rights and the rule of law. When legal protections are broken, and property rights are abandoned, the poorest members of society are vulnerable to immense exploitation, and the creation of new wealth is impeded by a lack of civil stability. For Hill, the “government ought not to be engaged in redistributing income.”
Adrian Walker’s essay, “The Poverty of Liberal Economics,” is an exposition detailing the shortcomings of a liberal economy in light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Although economic activity possesses its own teleology, “what liberalism misses…is that the market’s legitimate authority, like that of everything else in creation, is itself constituted by relation to God, not in separation from him.” Walker argues that poverty is not the problem, but rather our true crisis is formed by the spiritual poverty which exists in our society to a high degree. We cannot begin to address economic concerns when our own spirits are separated from the reality of Christ. There is a certain freedom which exists in economic poverty, and a richness that occurs in having our souls properly ordered to God. Materialism in the form of liberal economics does not work, writes Walker, because it “is not formed in Christ’s poverty of spirit.”
Consciously written in the “spirit of John Paul II,” Michael Novak’s “Catholic Social Teaching, Markets, and the Poor,” is a skilled defense of free-market systems. When combined with democratic government, free-markets offer “a better hope to the poor of the world than do socialist or traditionalist systems.” While open markets and the growth of democratic regimes are not the highest aims of a Christian society, the Catholic Church looks favorably upon them, argues Novak, when they “conform to the rule of law and subject themselves to sound moral criteria.” Clearly rebuffing the term liberal in its revolutionary sense, Novak embraces a liberalism that is committed to limited government, religious liberty, human dignity, and an economy driven by enterprise and free cooperation. Novak details the Catholic position on materialism, and delves into the teachings of Rerum Novarum on solidarity—not a revolutionary socialist movement, but rather an understanding that human beings participate in one humanity, “living in communio with all other humans in God.”
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