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The Universality of the Market

This issue of Religion & Liberty is built around a theme: People of different religious traditions can provide a defense for the free market that is informed by their faith.

This fact demonstrates an important point about the market; it is not a theoretical construct that springs forth from a particular philosophic or religious framework, even if human liberty is better defended from within social structures inspired by certain theological premises than others. It is a way to describe how people interact economically. In other words, the market is “merely” the sum of economic behavior of men and women. It is a way of describing what Adam Smith identified as our natural propensity to “truck and barter.” The market therefore cannot be abolished – Soviet Russia tried, and failed miserably. Markets will always be with us. The real question at hand, then, is not whether to have a market, but what kind of market is most appropriate for the human person, to what extent it should be controlled, and by whom.

Economics alone cannot help us find answers to these questions. The Greek word from which “economics” is derived is economia, and literally means “household management.” Economics can tell us the best means to reach a previously chosen end, but by itself can provide no criteria by which to evaluate that end. Economics is a descriptive, not a prescriptive, discipline. The discussion of ends, and the ends for which we ought to strive, lies in the realm of religious and philosophic discourse. In other words, economics can tell how to get somewhere, but only religion and philosophy can tell us where it is that we ought to go.

Christianity, as do all religious traditions, gives a particular account of the nature and destiny of human beings. It was because of this quality that the Rev. Edmund Opitz could note that, “The acceptance of the main features of Christian philosophy implies a free society and a limited government, with economic affairs organized in terms of the market.” I take these “main features” to be the inherent dignity of the human person, created in the Image of God, and endowed with intellect and creativity. Markets should be free so that the human person is able to exercise these gifts to their highest potential.

The second way we can come to an understanding of the nature of the human person is through philosophy–observation and reflection on transcendent values. This observation shows that human beings strive for certain things. Our observation is complicated, though, by the fact that we have the ability to choose many things. Thus a criteria needs to be established by which these things can be judged; that is, we need to establish an understanding of what is good. The Good traditionally has been defined as that which allows human beings to flourish. The kind of societies in which we most flourish are those that are free.

Christian thinkers have traditionally called these insights the Natural Law or Common Grace, the universal set of truths written on our hearts from all eternity. And as the Natural Law is derived from human experience, these insights are available and understandable to those of other faiths, or of even of no faith at all. We all can look at the world, discern its truths, and make reasonable judgments about how it works and how it ought to work. So the defense of a free market is universal because it is based on universal human experience.

A market that is free is most appropriate to what we know about the nature of man. By embracing this truth, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith can affirm together how we ought to live, work, and trade in peaceful coexistence.