The Acton Institute believes that commerce is an essential component to the culture of any society, enabling individuals to freely serve the needs of one another through mutually beneficial exchange.
Many who proclaim the culture of life fault the free market for devaluing human life and reducing people to mere economic actors, valued only for their earning potential or their productive capacity. Our times are characterized by a lack of respect for the dignity of the human person, but it is a tragedy to see our allies against the forces that degrade the human person hindered in their efforts because of a misunderstanding of the market economy. The interaction, tension, and ultimate reconciliation of the culture of the market and the culture of life is a subject worthy of deeper reflection.
First, let us be clear about definitions: The culture of life is the recognition that this life is a temporary stage of our eternal existence and that life itself is a gift entrusted to us by our Maker that should be preserved with the utmost responsibility and care. Life carries a sacred value from its inception to its end, and every human being has the right to have his life respected to the fullest extent possible.
On the other hand, the market is not a mere abstraction of economic production and distribution, but, rather, people themselves—people who save and invest, keep contracts and watch markets, take risks and make dreams. In their economic lives as producers and consumers, they are cooperating in a vast network of exchange in which people half a world away buy their products and make products for them.
The market strengthens the culture of life and its moral order in three important ways. First, the market promotes peace among people. From the simplest to the most complex market exchanges, they all have one thing in common: people trading voluntarily with each other to their mutual self-satisfaction. Second, the market offers people the best opportunities to employ their creative gifts and become full participants in society, thus obeying God’s command to work and create. In contrast, legal barriers and perverse incentives erected by government prevent people from entering the workforce and keep many from perfecting their abilities and becoming a vital part of society’s division of labor. Third, the free market promotes the material betterment of humanity. For example, it has brought modern medicine, electricity, running water, and, now, information access to an ever-broadening segment of the world population.
It is unfortunate and highly dangerous that many of the market’s most eloquent advocates often overlook the moral foundations of freedom. To those who might be tempted to think that society can revolve around the bank statement, the culture of life delivers a message: Base motives can also exist within a market economy. The Congregationalist minister Dr. Edmund Opitz puts it this way: "… the market will exhibit every shortcoming men exhibit in their thinking and peaceful acting, for—in the broadest sense—it is nothing else but that." There are values higher than profit and market success, one of which is the preeminent value of life itself.
This message—that the culture of the market and the culture of life can reinforce each other—needs to be brought to public debate. Radical libertarians who deny this need are doing no service to the cause of economic liberty. At the same time, those who would seek a rapprochement between the culture of the market and the culture of life must be clear that they are not for a capitalism that places the human person at the mercy of blind economic forces and that is not rooted in a fundamental ethic of life, person, and property. What we propose, rather, is a free economy that puts the human person at the center of economic actions because the human person is the source of all economic initiative. So, let me make the case that the market, imbued with freedom and virtue, is a necessary ally for a social order that respects human dignity.
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