All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1986

A Reviewers Notebook: Morality of the Market

The Fraser Institute of Canada had a grand idea when it invited more than two dozen people of varying persuasions and expertise to talk about the morality of the market. The idea was to bring theologians together with economists of a predominantly secularist bias to discuss values as they may affect the ways of men and women who have their livings to make. The results of the Fraser symposium have been collected in a book called Morality of the Market: Religious and Economic Perspectives, edited by Walter Block, Geoffrey Bren nan, and Kenneth Elzinga (The Fraser Institute, Vancouver, British Columbia, 601 pp.).

Frankly, the book has given me a bad time. I found it utterly fascinating in detail, but it is quite literally all over the place. The participants all had their say, with comments piled on comments, but, in the words of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, they come out as individuals by the same door that in they went.

Not that there is any basic disagreement between Milton Friedman on the one hand and the Reverend James M. Wall of the Christian Century magazine on the other about the role that fundamental religious convictions may play in economic affairs. Value assumptions cannot be avoided. The trouble comes from the inability of twenty-eight participants to reach any consensus about the will of God. The general assumption is that the

Creator has endowed human beings with a moral sense, but does this mean that we must all be socialists in order to make human brotherhood a reality? The Catholic bishops come up with one set of answers when they say the decisions of the marketplace must be corrected if there is to be justice to the poor, but they may be missing the forest for the trees. So may certain spokesmen for Protestant Christianity, such as the contributors to the Christian Century that Edmund Opitz quotes in his paper about a magazine that he began to read in his school years.

J. Philip Wogaman, a professor of Christian Social Ethics, makes the point that a good economic system should allow for the concepts of stewardship, vocation and charity. He condemns laissez-faire economics for its alleged failure to protect the weaker members of the community and the common environmental inheritance of everybody. He likes the New Deal because it “worked” to bring about “beneficent” social change.

Wogaman is not quite a socialist, for he says there “may well be a need for private centers of economic power.” But he is oblivious to the claims of the Vienna and Chicago economic schools that when government intervenes in the disposition of wealth there will be less money in the end available to care for the needs of growing populations. The paradox here is that welfare depends on capital earnings, but the earnings must fall short if the state takes more than a minimal percentage of the capital usufruct for its own purposes, whether beneficent or not. Wogaman is a clear thinker in his own realm, but it is fairly obvious that he has never seriously studied economics.

In his “overview” paper, John C. Bennett of the Union Theological Seminary explains his own evolution. He was originally influenced by the so-called Social Gospel, and by the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, which made him a Christian Socialist. But since 1950 he has, as he says, lost his dogmatism. Now he gives “weight” to “the pluralism and the incentives for efficiency and productivity” which are “characteristic” of capitalism. But in conceding that the market has its virtues Bennett has not really changed his mind. “One gen eral conclusion that can be drawn,” he says, “is that Christian teaching about finiteness and sin provide warnings against both a consistent socialism and a consistent faith in the market economy.”

This sort of talk leaves me floundering. The Twentieth Century offers ample proof that socialism can’t feed its own people. The private plots are what keep Russian peasants going. Collectivist agriculture in Africa has starved its millions. In Red China they are now turning to enterprise zones in an effort to restore the productivity that Maoism killed. Sweden’s vaunted Middle Way struggles along by tolerating capitalist enterprise, but the boredom that comes with leveling incomes has resulted in a high suicide rate. Ludwig von Mises proved long ago that the problem of calculation is insoluble under complete socialism. Without a price system nobody would know how much wheat to plant, how much fertilizer to produce, or how many widgets to make.

In short, faith in a market system is a sine qua non if the human race is to endure and proliferate. Where people have lost their faith in the market, production has faltered, and the worst, as Hayek has said, have risen to the top to make slaves of the rest. It is an insult to God’s intelligence to argue that Christian teaching about sin demands an equal amount of skepticism of both socialism and the free market. The latter lets more people live, which is in full accord with the Biblical injunction to increase and multiply.

Michael Novak’s overview paper takes direct issue with Bennett’s. Novak has no hesitation in saying that the market is far more concordant with the Christian vision of the human being than any system of production and distribution by political command. Voluntary exchange and autonomous choice, he says, are critical both for religious liberty and for freedom to preach the Word.

There is most certainly a lot to life besides economics. Edmund Opitz quotes Matthew Arnold on the instinct for intellect and knowledge, the instinct for beauty and poetry, the instinct for social life and manners, and the instinct for religion and morals. These demand expression just as much as the instinct for accumulation and expansion. But if there is no acumulation and expansion, there will be fewer people around to seek knowledge and beauty.

Ed Opitz, commenting on Ezra Mishan’s paper, says there is a great deal of truth in Mishan’s contention that economics and politics have usurped a position in our lives that their intrinsic merit does not deserve. But without science, technology and large-scale production four-and-a-half billion people would have little energy left to cultivate the non-economic values. The big question posed by this book is whether a market system or a command system is more compatible with finding scope for expressing the Arnoldian instincts. The answer should be the market system, but the babel of voices in this book is more confusing than clarifying.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.