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Volume 44, Number 2 (Winter 2006)

Moral Visions of the Free Market

Wealth, Poverty & Human Destiny
edited by Doug Bandow and David Schindler.
ISI Books (Wilmington, Delware), 350 pp., $29.95 cloth, 2003.

Glen Austin Sproviero

book cover imageFor 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.”

The natural extension of Novak’s argument is globalization, which he embraces as the “natural ecology of the Catholic faith.” Having the poor of the world enter into cooperation with major economic systems coincides, he argues, with the Catholic idea of a universal brotherhood of man. He stresses the call of John Paul II for wealthy nations to welcome third-world countries into economic relationships. This not only would allow for cooperation in engendering the growth of new capital, but it further allows for local institutions to become less corrupt through the necessary transparency that follows from international cooperation. Solidarity is, then, at once a matter of individual moral responsibility placed in cooperation with a universal call to live in communion with all human beings in the light of God’s love. It is incumbent upon all human beings to respect the integrity of the each person, for as Novak writes, “without communio, there is no whole human subject.”

Mr. Novak stresses that human capital is the primary economic entity, and that, in the modern world, education is required if the markets are to flourish. “The chief cause of the wealth of nations is human wit—discovery, invention, the habit of enterprise, foresight, skill in organization,” he writes. Thus, man’s primary resource is himself, and if he is to participate in the global economy, he must have the skills to do so. Not only must this breed of economic man be skilled in scientific knowledge, he must be aware of the basic needs of his fellow man. The market is “a social instrument,” and this concept is at the center of Catholic economic thought. The markets are not closed systems, and every individual action has a reaction, which in turn, has an impact on the wider social organization.

In one of the most important contributions to this book, Samuel Gregg explores the moral dimensions of free choice. Positive laws, he argues, should facilitate the fulfillment of a moral good. The proposition of an unchanging good, as opposed to the moral philosophy of liberal theorists John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, is necessary to defend against ridiculous assertions of individual prerogative and the arbitrary exercise of power. If every opinion warrants the distinction of possessing its own moral truth, then proponents of slavery are as entitled to exert their ignominious claims as its most outspoken adversaries. Apologists of slavery, under this system, possess as legitimate an argument to institute laws protecting this institution as its most outspoken opponents. As Gregg writes, “If all opinions are equal, then we must conclude that Edmund Burke’s views, for example, are only as valuable as those of Joseph Stalin.” This principle has far reaching consequences in terms of individual morality, the institution of positive laws, and in the formation of economic policy.

For Gregg, it is imperative to regard the market as an institution bound to the human aspects of civilization. The economic order is not a distinct, insular abstraction that is capable of being divorced from the greater reality of culture. While the markets are not a sufficient enough basis to establish the claims of truth, it is an entity capable of reflecting the moral dimensions of a culture. Gregg fully understands that being a Christian means sometimes rejecting the more advantageous economic choice in favor of the less attractive, but morally right, position on the side of eternal Truth. He does not shun the proposition of capitalism, for we are all capitalists, to some degree. He does, however, recognize its limits and stresses the importance for Christians to not isolate themselves from the realities of the material world. Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross demonstrates God’s love for humanity, and the human person is more than the temporal embodiment of pure spirit.

Similarly to Gregg, Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine, argues that claims of moral neutrality are logically impossible. Fr. Neuhaus profoundly rejects the notion of perfection in the city of man. The temporal order is incapable of reaching the utopian heights imagined by naive, dreamy aspirants. The coercive state is no exception to this, because it is only when humans act as free, moral agents, that they are able to realize their potential good. In a free society, the state is only an instrument, accompanied by a chorus of other players, in the cultivation of whole culture. The foundation of culture, however, is the dynamic character of individuals living in free cooperation with each other in the grace of God.

The editors of this volume respond to the arguments of the contributors. Beginning with Paul Johnson’s observation that the 20th century was “the age of politics,” Doug Bandow thrusts himself into a defense of the need for a market economy. If wealth is to be created the use of free markets must prevail. There are, however, limitations to the successes of global capitalism. Capitalism is not exempt from scrutiny, no matter how successful or beneficial it may be to the cultivation of a free society. Like any social institution, the free-market system has serious flaws, and there are always people willing to exploit it for personal gain. Furthermore, the vocabulary employed in the discussion over economics must be clarified, especially when it comes to poverty. In the modern, seemingly benign welfare-state, there is a strong undercurrent of class envy which is the necessary result of a culture focused on economic entitlements. Thus, the conversation about how to relieve poverty focuses upon the redistribution of wealth as opposed to finding ways of creating new wealth. Additionally, the idea of poverty is not a relative term. Middle class Americans are in dire economic straights if one is to compare their financial worth with that of Bill Gates. The middle-class person, driving a new domestic car, is not in a state of poverty because he doesn’t own a Jaguar. Poverty, for Bandow, is something beyond a term of comparative wealth. Real poverty exists when people are unable to eat, possess clothing, or maintain shelter.

The alleviation of poverty is an important task in the life of any Christian, but the extent to which state coercion participates in the realization of this goal is a matter of serious question. The assertion that every Christian need be a socialist, for Bandow, must be viewed against the idea that persons who depend on the government to forcibly remove property from their richer neighbors, purely for their own benefit, are just as enamored of the things of this world as the die-hard capitalist of the Marxian caricature. Bandow defends the free-market, not as the embodiment of Christian idealism, but with John Paul II, as a tolerable alternative to the enslaving ideologies of collectivism.

David Schindler, on the other hand, proposes an alternative view to the pro-market vision proposed by Bandow and Novak. While he does not embrace a state-run socialism, nor any of the coercive collectivism shunned by Bandow, he suggests that “wealth and poverty must be understood [finally] in terms of the destiny that defines the nature of man.” Schindler maintains that the vision of the economists in this volume differ in their vision of Christianity, and not in the more topical vision of economics. In other words, Schindler and his opponents differ in how they understand “communio,” and the implications of the Church’s vision of the person for economics. While Bandow favors a more market-based environment for the poor to attain a reasonable standard of living, Schindler attempts to understand the problem of poverty in broader terms—“the human person in his or her totality.” He rejects the idea that economics is a system to be viewed in its own terms and on its own grounds.

Mr. Schindler elegantly explains that the divisions in this book lay along the fault line of authors selected by Bandow (Peter Hill, Michael Novak, Samuel Gregg, Jennifer Roback Morse, Daniel Griswold, and Richard John Neuhaus) and himself (Adrian Walker, D. Stephen Long, William Cavanaugh, David Crawford, V. Bradley Lewis, and Arthur Davis). The essential break has to do with Bandow’s group believing that “Christianity has made its peace with liberalism on its best reading.” Schindler, on the other hand, maintains that liberalism is perhaps the greatest threat to Christianity in the contemporary world. He believes that liberalism has hijacked certain terms and cloaked them with benign connotations—“tolerance,” “compassion,” “freedom,” “rights.” The violence of liberalism, he contends, takes as its victims the most defenseless and unfortunate members of society—the unborn, the sick, and the elderly. The loss of community, of familial love, and of the meaning of what it is to be human is the result of liberalism’s seemingly harmless desire for freedom of choice and rights.

The collective synergy of the essays selected for this volume prevents the creation of an academic dogmatism to which an inquiry such as this can so easily degenerate. This type of dynamic at once ensures that the subject is given a thorough and fair treatment, and is a testament to the importance of this discussion as a central component of our cultural outlook. St. Augustine’s two cities, running parallel in history and touching at various points, come into direct contact with one another in this debate. The function of economics as a material science is inextricably linked to the larger moral structure that is attached to human affairs, and it is through the application of eternal principles to the temporal world by which we create a tolerable, balanced order. If we fail, as a social community, to achieve a fusion of our material circumstances and our eternal moral obligations, we fail to fulfill our natural teleology. The essayists in this group, though possessing different visions of how to accomplish a unity of high moral standards with the markets, are keenly aware of our responsibility to those things that lay beyond the domain of material quantification. Each of these contributors struggles to find a system that satisfies our moral obligations and views the material world, not with a Manichean vision, but rather, as an object of God’s creation that must be loved, but loved with limits.

The unique dynamic of Wealth, Poverty and Human Destiny is due to its varied cast of contributors, each bringing his or her own perspective to this important discussion. Bandow’s critical defense of the market-economy, and Schindler’s critique of liberalism combine to form a nuanced discussion of the role of free-market economics in the modern world. Intelligently organized and elegantly written, Wealth, Poverty and Human Destiny lays out the pros and cons of a market-based economy in clear, simple language that many similar books of its kind could never do.

Glen Austin Sproviero is currently a Richard M. Weaver Fellow doing graduate studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Posted: March 21, 2007

Imagination it is that shapes society—moral imagination, or idyllic imagination, or diabolic imagination.

Russell Kirk

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