Acton Commentary

Peace, Social Harmony, and Enterprise


In addition to my pastoral responsibilities, I spend a good deal of my time working on behalf of the idea of human liberty. I do this because I believe that the preservation of liberty requires two related conditions: intellectual understanding and spiritual renewal.

I'm often asked what the biggest intellectual barrier to understanding liberty is. I believe it is this: many people are unwilling to consider the idea that society contains within it the possibility of self-organization. To put it another way, some people have a difficult time understanding what makes for cooperative human settings that can thrive and develop in the absence of an overarching human design.

This is an abstract idea, I know, and one that contradicts the core thesis of the public imagination of our times. We are all drawn to stories of conflict. We think in terms of political conflicts. Wars draw our attention to military conflicts. Crime causes us to expect conflict and be on guard constantly against it. In academia, scholarship in the social sciences harps relentlessly on implacable conflicts between capital and workers, men and women, blacks and whites, Jews and Christians and Muslims. And, of course, the news media thrive on stories of conflict.

I cannot deny that such conflicts exist. But I do believe that it is a mistake to allow their existence to shape our minds to the point that we find it impossible to imagine how human beings might get along in day-to-day affairs. A “conflict-only” view of human affairs makes us blind to the remarkable ways in which society manages itself in peace and harmony. It is human cooperation, it seems to me, that is in need of explanation and understanding.

Let me draw attention to one of the main areas of human cooperation: economic affairs. Every day, every minute, hundreds of millions of people cooperate across many language groups and time zones and nationalities to work out the great project of creating and allocating world resources in a manner than improves the lot of all peoples from all classes in most parts of the world. If you consider only the workings of something like the currency markets, with their billions of inputs and variables and values, that the whole system works at all is something approaching a miracle.

Markets Matter

But of course this is only one small slice of a vast and global matrix of exchange that comprises what we call the world market economy. From the largest to the smallest exchanges, commerce and enterprise provide a wonderful setting for the achievement of peace. And let us not belittle the contribution of the commercial marketplace to the well being of the human population. It is not only about fast food and cheap toys, as certain activists would have it; it is also about health care, nutrition for the hungry, housing and clothing for the world, and less misery for the human race in general. Commerce and the prosperity it brings also make possible the funding of charity, religious institutions, libraries, cultural affairs, and other non-market endeavors important to the building of a civilization worthy of the human person. The market provides a point of connection that brings all peoples of the world in contact with each other and permits all people to make contributions to the prosperity of humankind.

While the market is only one aspect of the overall order of human cooperation, it is, perhaps, the least appreciated (and frequently vilified). One reason that economics is overlooked in curricula and rarely discussed in seminaries or public sector employment programs, is that people do not like what it is implies. Economics implies that we can cooperate toward our mutual betterment. Our society is so filled with people who thrive on conflict that this is not always a welcome message. Such people depend on the conflict of others for their own justification.

Commercial activity has (and must have) a moral dimension. It is rooted in the institutions of freedom and the ownership of private property. It might seem strange--at first glance even a contradiction--to affirm, in the words of the poet Robert Frost, that “good fences make good neighbors.”

Aren't fences things that keep people apart from one other and don't boundaries send the message that some are on the outside while others are on the inside? Don't fences separate rather than bring together? They might do so, but for the miracle of trade--that fascinating institution that enables people with differing needs and values to come together and reassign ownership titles to their mutual betterment. Without such ownership--or in Frost's word “fences”--voluntary trade would not be possible. Without ownership, Aristotle said, even basic acts of human charity are not possible. After all, you cannot welcome someone into your home if you cannot own a home.

Freedom, ownership, and trade-- these are essential institutions that form the basis of human cooperation and peace. And yet, they are so often misunderstood and traduced, such as when private property is called theft, or when confiscatory rates of taxation are termed 'investments,' and most especially, when the international expansion of trade is dubbed 'international imperialism' as though globalization were some kind of coerced relationship that advantages one party at the expense of another. It is here that we observe a breakdown of logical and moral coherence.

Trading Talents

What is trade if not the normative way in which people better themselves and their families, and thereby whole societies? When human beings are not hindered from employing their varied talents and creative energies to solve the problems of scarcity--and do so freely--how is this either violent or unjust?

There are other confusions over terminology that are part of common parlance. We commonly distinguish between charity and commerce as if the two were completely separate. In fact, both work together. There would be no charity in the absence of the wealth created through commerce; nor would commerce long survive if it did not result in increasing the well being of individuals in society.

I do find it fascinating how the line that once separated charity and commerce has become ever thinner, as businesses and stock funds discover that their institutional self-interest is bound up with advertising and promoting their social mission. More enterprises need to understand their social mission, and it is not only about giving to the poor but also about human service generally.

Another example is how we distinguish between volunteerism and remunerative labor. Why is 'volunteerism' a word applied only to the non-profit sector? All trade and labor is voluntary in a market setting. We are all volunteers, whether we are paid or not. We continue to speak about economic affairs as if it were 1205 instead of 2005. We live in an age of vast commercial engagement, and it is here where we can and must find peace, harmony, and human cooperation.

Peace is not the mere absence of conflict: it is, rather, the right ordering of things and people in their just relationships. And it is here where we must place an emphasis on spiritual renewal. I do not believe that the mysteries and glories of human society can be fully comprehended apart from an understanding of the worth of the individual person and that Masterful hand which is the origin and destiny of all things. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are called to develop a fuller and deeper understanding of why God made the world to be characterized by peace and cooperation rather than war and conflict. He did so because he endowed human beings with free will, transcendent dignity, and intelligence. To achieve our right end requires that we see the world as the occasion of encountering God's grace--precisely here in the midst of human limitation and scarcity. It requires that we understand not only economics but also the transcendent end toward which all things, including economic affairs, are drawn.