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The Market, the Needy, and the Argument

Wealth, Poverty, & Human Destiny is a joint project— by the John Templeton Foundation and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—whose stated purpose is to investigate “whether and to what extent the market economy helps the poor.” The book’s co-editors, Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute and David Schindler of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., were given the task of gathering together an array of scholars who would offer their reflections on this question in the light of Christian faith. The result is a collection of essays by over a dozen scholars whose judgments on the free market reflect, quite naturally, the divergent perspectives of the editors. Bandow’s contributors include Samuel Gregg, Daniel Griswold, Peter Hill, Jennifer Roback Morse, Michael Novak, John Neuhaus, Max Stackhouse and Lawrence Stratton, while Schindler’s team consists of Wendell Berry, William Cavanaugh, David Crawford, V. Bradley Lewis, D. Stephen Long, and Adrian Walker.

With the exception of the two editors’ response essays, the contributors are not explicitly engaged in dialogue with one another, though their different perspectives naturally lead them to critical engagement with the judgments and values that the “other side” represents. The arrangement of the essays—alternating between Bandow’s and Schindler’s contributors—makes for a curious reading experience if one simply follows the order of presentation. Bandow’s essayists tend to be more engaged with the actual question of how free markets affect the poor, since they generally regard the liberal economic order to be worthy of human nature and dignity, even as they acknowledge that it will ever reflect our sinfulness and the fact that God has truly given us the freedom to love or reject him and his loving designs. Schindler’s essayists, on the other hand, tend to be more concerned with making the case that liberalism, liberal economics, and/or capitalism are themselves fundamentally disordered. In their judgment, liberalism does not accord, in theory or in practice, with the loving, self-giving communio of the Trinity that is the truest representation of our nature and destiny, whether we think of this in explicitly Christian terms, or see it in the natural ordination of all persons to love.

As a broad generalization, then, one might say that for the Bandow group, the first chapters of Genesis, the American sensibility to the Creator’s gift of liberty, and the necessarily evangelical task of the Church are more prominent realities than they are for the Schindler group. God clearly commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but he just as clearly made it possible—both in the created structure of Adam’s being and in the created structure of Adam’s environment—for Adam to choose to do otherwise. Adam was free to act in a way that was, in certain respects, at odds with the goodness of the structures God had created, even as his power of choice depended on the freedom that is part of those structures’ intrinsic goodness.

The evangelical task of the Church is to introduce Adam, with his natural endowment of liberty (and his susceptibility to the father of lies) to the New Adam, who alone can offer him the glorious freedom of the children of God, and who alone gives him “the perfect law of liberty,” to “hear” and to “do” and to “gaze into,” as into an honest mirror (James 1: 25).

For Schindler et al., on the other hand, a communio model of personhood is more to the fore. Our origin, our destiny, and the structure of our everyday reality, are all formed from within by the reality of loving, self-giving relationality and other-centered communio. If Genesis and the dominical command are the lodestars of a Christian classical liberalism, the Trinity and the self-giving of Jesus in the Paschal mystery are key to the communio vision.

Accordingly, a number of these authors propose rethinking economic exchange in terms of “gift,” a concept that has received increasing attention of late from a number of scholars across a variety of disciplines, both secular and religious. As Schindler and several of his contributors see it, the liberal notion of exchange grounded in mutual self-interest needs to be replaced with “gift and gratitude,” which is the more fundamental form of exchange in God’s creation. This is manifested in our very existence: we are beings who first receive the gift of ourselves from our Creator, hence our selves “always already” have a “prior centeredness in the other.”

As he has argued extensively over the years, Schindler continues to argue that “liberalism” bears within itself a notion of the person that is at odds with both Christianity and reality: liberalism presumes an autonomous, self-centered self, abstracted from its constitutive relations with others, such that human relationality is construed in an extrinsic manner, something “added on” to a being who already exists as an autonomous, self-centered individual.

Much of this will be familiar to those who have followed the ongoing debates between Schindler, Novak, and Neuhaus. Familiar, as well, will be the usual charges leveled against capitalism, though readers may be surprised to encounter the assertion, in 2003, that “Christianity must continue to be open to socialism in a way that it cannot be open toward capitalism ….” Some will find in Wealth, Poverty & Human Destiny ample confirmation of Neuhaus’s conviction that “we are contending for the soul of the liberal tradition.” That we must thus contend not only with liberals, but with conservative Christian anti-liberals, is one of the lessons of this book. Neuhaus’s essay on “The Liberalism of John Paul II” is a highly recommended, inspirational gem in this regard.

This unusual collection of essays also suggests further lines of thought that might be profitably pursued (if one may be forgiven the desire for profit—several contributors apparently regard it as a species of sin!). The advocacy of “gift exchange” and the “gift and gratitude” paradigm by a number of contributors, combined with the salience of “the gift” in contemporary philosophy, ethics, and social theory, calls for examination. “Gift and gratitude” sound more noble and innocent than “mutual self interest,” but is the matter so simple?

First, as Marcel Mauss’s classical anthropological study of eighty years ago amply documents (Essai sur le don), real gifts and gift exchange are not as innocent and unproblematic as they may seem in the abstract. A gift economy can very readily incorporate status-seeking, competition, a utilitarian calculus, and the assertion of power or control over another—the same old human sins that crop up in the so-called “liberal form of exchange.”

Secondly, Jacques Derrida’s handling of “the gift” shows how the ontological reality of the Creator’s gift to each of us—the gift of our own being—is far from unproblematic for the person who is ambivalent about entering into the relationship that “gratitude” requires. On one level, every person must receive the gift of himself because it is a “given” about which we, as creatures, have no choice. On this level, Schindler’s ontology and anthropology are correct. But on another level, God has indeed also given us the possibility of receiving the gift of ourselves to some degree without receiving it as a gift, as his gift to us. As a giver, God does not compel us to see the gift character of all that he gives us as a requirement of our ability to receive it. We might say that God manifests, in this regard, his liberality. But God’s liberality and Derrida’s reluctant ambivalence before the relationship implied in receiving, as God’s gift, what is “given,” bring us back to Adam’s moment of freedom and choice. Even though the very law “written in our hearts” directs us naturally to turn to our Creator in gratitude, this remains a personal and free act. Again we are faced with the task of evangelization and the necessity of grace, even within an ontology of being as “gift.” Grace, in fact, is “gift” par excellence, the “gift of gifts” that allows us to receive all God’s gifts with gratitude.

One disappointment—given the book’s purpose—is that none of the authors who develop this idea that “the liberal form of exchange” must be supplanted by the communio form of exchange delve much into the problem of poverty. Where they do mention poverty, it is generally not the sort of poverty that plagues poor people like Lazarus, or my neighbors in the ‘hood.’ They speak, rather, of “the poverty of liberal economics,” or “poverty of spirit.” The goal is to become poor in spirit so we can understand wealth and poverty anew, in the light of Christ, rather than in the darkness of the liberal economic paradigm.

But do these thinkers understand that when they disparage self-love, and require that “the ‘Smithian’ desire for profit be recognized always and everywhere as a vice indicating a need for conversion,” they are attacking two important keys to the healthy development of impoverished inner city residents and their neighborhoods? Proper self-love and locally-owned, profitable, licit businesses are utterly essential to urban renewal. And the two are interrelated. The contributors to this volume who emphasize the “gift” economy seem not to understand that the urban underclass in America has a profound need to exercise the God-given gifts of dominion and self-determination that John Paul II has written about so eloquently. On this point, evangelical urban pastors and classical liberal Christians will be in earnest agreement with the pope from Communist Poland.

One comes away from Wealth, Poverty, & Human Destiny with the impression that some of its contributors are so opposed to capitalism and profit-seeking that they would not recognize something like the Reverend Leon Sullivan’s Self-Help Investment Program as a gift from God. SHIP is a faith-based community investment program that has enabled poor urban communities to build up a pool of shared capital and invest it profitably in the economic redevelopment of their own neighborhoods. It is the sort of innovative, faith-based free market initiative that one would have expected to hear about in a book written by Christian scholars examining “whether and to what extent the free market helps the poor.”

This lacuna is, in my judgment, the book’s greatest weakness, given its stated purpose. Free markets surely help the poor, but free markets combined with Christian faith in action help the poor in a special way, combining the gifts of liberalism and capitalism with the undeniably precious gifts of Christian communio. Some readers will not feel this lack, but for those who do, it is bound to leave Jesus’ words to the woman at the well rising up in their spirits: “If you knew the gift of God!