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Respecting, Not Worshipping, Free Markets

In his modern classic “The Call,” the Christian social critic Dr. Os Guinness (and yes, for those wondering about the name, beer is in his blood) tells of a blunt Singaporean economist who made the following statement:
The decisive question for the West is its capacity to direct and discipline capitalism with an ethic strong enough to do so. I myself don’t believe the West can do it.
In my mind, that question—and the quest for a different and more hopeful answer—sits at the heart of the Values & Capitalism initiative. A number of traps are set against us. One temptation for many religious types on the Right—accustomed to running in circles that confusingly mix and mingle strictly-business interests with the politics of piety—is to assume that capitalism can operate independent of higher values. There is no reason to guard one’s heart in this realm, the seductive whisper goes, because the market itself turns vice into virtue. Each person need simply to follow his or her natural affinity for self-interest and societal betterment magically results, right? But this makes too much of Adam Smith’s famous insight, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Before setting the self-interest cruise control, we should remember that the same man who penned “The Wealth of Nations” also wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” where he observed:
And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature.
Smith advocated capitalism within a pre-existing cultural framework rooted in natural law, rather than directly proclaiming it as an independent or self-executing source of morality. For many, however, free market principles have indeed risen to just such a higher realm, a phenomenon long chronicled by University of Maryland’s Dr. Robert Nelson in works such as “Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond.” Regarding the existence of a supreme being, Nelson counts himself an agnostic, but this economist with a keen eye for quasi-spiritual worldviews concludes, “The most vital religion of the modern age has been economic progress.” He sees modern day oracles like Gary Becker and Richard Posner as openly asserting that “self-interest, not the teachings of the church, drive the world.”
As a follower first of Christ rather than Smith or the Chicago School, I am reminded of the parable in Luke 14 about the fool who found his security in bigger barns filled with grain. Jesus concludes that it is better to be a simple barnless bird cared for by the Father than “one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” Paul famously warned that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and elsewhere Jesus went so far as to describe wealth as a spiritual power (Mammon) in conflict with the one true God. Christians must therefore engage any wealth-creating system with caution, because all economic arrangements are subject to abuse. We should view capitalism with respect—not worshipful awe—recognizing that free markets can be good as opposed to believing that free markets are intrinsically good. The goal is to effectively control this power tool while not becoming a cog in service to a machine that controls us. Thankfully, as suggested in the parable of the talents found in Matthew 25, the voluntary transactions, innovation and entrepreneurship that free markets foster can often lead to hearing the words “Well done, good and faithful servant,” from the true Master. The successful stewards in that story recognized their relationship to the Master and that subsidiary position guided their successful thinking. On the other hand, the rich young ruler of Matthew 19 turned away from Jesus because he was convinced that the wealth he possessed was his and his alone. Os Guinness summarizes the situation well saying, “Either we serve God and use money or we serve money and use God. Ultimately we follow what we have loved most intensely to is natural destination—eternity or death—’for where your treasure is, there will your heart be too.'” John Murdock is a natural resources attorney working in Washington, D.C. John has also been published in The New Atlantis, Relevant and Christianity Today among others.