Free Markets and the Profit of Solidarity

The following speech was delivered by Rev. Robert A. Sirico at the opening of the conference, “Globalization, Economy, and the Family,” held on November 27 through 29 and attended by Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders. In his remarks, Fr. Sirico emphasizes the need for a global free market to be complimented by a global culture of morality and human solidarity.

Introduction: Rhetoric and Reality

We open this conference on the Family, Law, and Globalization with joy and gratitude. We come to the eternal city with confidence and have many reasons to celebrate in this great jubilee year: Two thousand years of the love of Jesus Christ made manifest to the world. Two thousand years of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of men and women who have come to call themselves Christians. Two thousand years of the Catholic Church as a Sacrament to the human family.

The Holy Year has sparked intense interest across the globe. Theologians, social commentators, and political pundits have lavishly analyzed the significance of the year 2000 and the new millennium. The themes of our conference—culture, family life, solidarity, and economic globalization—are some of those on which this analysis has focused.

This gathering occurs during a pivotal point in world history. For the past twenty years we have all grown accustomed to hearing speakers discuss “family values” and argue for the significance of the family as a social institution, a domestic Church, and the cradle of culture and morality. These claims are certainly true. Yet all too often discussion of “family values” can ring hollow, and politicians and social theorists who employ the term can be guilty of rhetoric not backed up by policy or social reality.

The challenge for us at this momentous conference is to find actual and concrete ways to make “family values” a reality. We need to move beyond rhetoric to construct the framework for pro-family legislation, pro-family cultural attitudes and practices, and pro-family economic situations. We have come to serve the family; let us find real and meaningful ways to do so.

Family and the Primacy of Culture

How can one adequately stress the importance of the family? Certainly Pope John Paul II understands the centrality of the family. Fundamental to the social teaching of this pontificate has been the emphasis placed on the family as the basic unit of society and on the primacy of culture as the sphere within which the family impacts and is impacted by the broader society. It is the family, the Holy Father wrote in Ecclesia in America, that is “the place where the education of the person primarily takes place” (n. 71). The family is, therefore, the key to the formation of a culture of life. Every human person is brought into the world through the loving arms of a family. Family cements our relations to the rest of the human community and serves as a tangible reminder of the social nature of the person.

The last part of the twentieth century has seen the institution of the family threatened. War, social change, economic hardship, and cultural upheaval have all emerged as destabilizing forces on family life. The Church has constantly been a voice in defense of the family and has continually encouraged respect for the family.

Respect for the family promotes the goods necessary for the flourishing of persons in community. Those goods include life itself, health, knowledge, work, community, and faith. In particular, these goods are made real when a man and a woman give themselves to one another in marriage and welcome the gift of new life. It is the responsibility of these parents to provide children the home in which they can grow and develop. The family, by its very nature, is the foundational element of human society and the central force in the full development of the human person.

Solidarity: The Fundamental Social Virtue

Families are bound together in love and solidarity. Every individual family is called to be a rich expression of that love and solidarity and a witness of the same to the world. Furthermore, the human person participates in the broader human family by his or her own nature. Our humanity is shared, and our facticity as a person immediately and irrevocably links us to the rest of the human community. Yet, as the Holy Father reminds us, for participation to be most meaningful it must be consciously practiced and chosen. The willingness to practice participation while striving for social justice is the social virtue of solidarity. Solidarity is, therefore, the acceptance of our social nature and the affirmation of the bonds we share with all our brothers and sisters. Solidarity creates an environment in which mutual service is encouraged. Solidarity also creates the social conditions for human rights to be respected and nurtured. The ability to recognize and accept the whole range of corresponding duties and obligations that are embedded in our social nature can only occur in an atmosphere enlivened by solidarity.

As a virtue, solidarity’s context is freedom and justice. Our solidarity with all of the human family implies a special commitment to the most vulnerable and marginalized in our midst. The natural unity of the human family cannot be fully realized when people suffer the ills of poverty, discrimination, oppression, and social alienation leading to isolation from the larger community. Yet our response of love must be voluntary to be virtuous. In a special way, solidarity encourages striving for relationships that tend toward equality on the local, national, and international levels. All members of the human community must be brought as fully as possible into the circle of productive and creative relationships (CA, n. 42).

In the strict sense of the term, the most genuine and meritorious solidarity is uncoerced. In many historical circumstances, coerced solidarity denied responsible freedom and itself worked as an affront to human dignity. One cannot force, through political means, the acceptance of our shared responsibilities to one another in love. At the same time, no society may neglect the requirements of justice, particularly social and economic justice towards the poor. Society may appropriately direct actions of its members to fulfill the obligations owed in justice to all persons. We particularly hearken to the cries for justice emanating from the most vulnerable among us: the unborn, the poor, the young, the elderly, the marginalized, and in some cases, the family itself.

The true communion of solidarity incorporates and is built upon the reciprocity of men and women, most strikingly in marriage. The commitment to solidarity and charity, John Paul II has said, begins “in the family with the mutual support of husband and wife…” (CA, n. 49). As persons, men and women share many characteristics. Yet their differing strengths, interests, and emphases create a diversity that becomes a source of enrichment and unity. Solidarity is more fully achieved when the reciprocal differences of men and women are seen as an affirmation of the equal dignity of each.

In addition, solidarity’s surest foundation is faith. A true humanism implies love and respect for each and every individual human person. In a fallen world, however, it is only the recognition of the common fatherhood of God and brotherhood in Christ that will ensure the realization of this important principle. “Beyond human and natural bonds, already so close and strong,” the Holy Father wrote in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, “there is discerned in the light of faith a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity” (n. 40). This model is the family as the basis of culture.

Markets and Culture

Culture denotes all the manifestations of social life—customs, manners, habits of association, dress, food, and art—that are not solely concerned with sustaining life. Culture is all those activities that invest the world with meaning. A high degree of cultural interaction occurs between the spheres of religion, politics, education, and economics. A people’s collective way of life is a manifestation of their relationship to God and the things of God, and as such reflects the soul of the people. According to John Paul II, “From this open search for truth, which is renewed in every generation, the culture of a nation derives its character” (CA, n. 50). Enculturation plays an important role in helping individuals come to understand and accept the social order. In addition to the foregoing, culture exists and is engendered by human personality. The more aware people are of their own human dignity and the value of all human life, the more likely they will engender a culture that affirms that dignity and value.

Economic activity does not take place in a vacuum, but within the context of a culture. Markets are circumscribed by a juridical order and by moral institutions such as the family and church. These institutions interact with and mutually influence one another. Each actual market economy is therefore shaped by the culture in which it exists, and in turn, affects the daily practices and customs of the people that comprise it.

One key aspect of culture with regard to economic activity is the overall moral character of the people. The moral actions of people directly influence the quality of life within that society. For example, a society in which people do not appreciate the virtue of purity would then have to address the results of such neglect. If industriousness were widely disdained, then the results of this deficiency would require attention. Even the phenomenon of consumerism, writes John Paul, “is always marked by a more or less appropriate concept of man and of his true good. A given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption” (n. 36).

For a market economy to respect genuine human development, it must be imbued with and rest upon a vital foundation of moral values. Market economies require this foundation if they are to survive. For instance, verbal contracts are entered into with trust. Merchants are taken at their word. Credit is extended to persons whose character bespeaks the responsibility necessary to honor the loan. Honesty, integrity, courage, and faithfulness are all integral virtues for successful market activity.

Yet critics contend that markets tend to have a deleterious effect upon culture. They cite a heightened and often disordered desire for material luxuries, a splintering of society due to competitive individualism, and an increase in poverty as those who cannot compete through no fault of their own are left behind.

Pope John Paul II, in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, speaks of two definitions of capitalism, one that he calls just—and that can be described as the free market—and the other that he considers to be unjust, which conforms to our understanding of a market that neglects virtue:

… can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? …The answer is obviously complex. If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of businesses, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy’, ‘market economy’, or simply ‘free economy’. But if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative. (CA, n. 42, emphasis added)

The Holy Father specifically criticizes capitalism that is not placed in the service of human freedom and the human family in its totality. This is a seminally important insight. Notice the element the Holy Father considers crucial for the kind of capitalism that he explicitly defends: free human creativity in the economic sector. It is this free human creativity that we see as the defining element of a free market. And, in such a context, human creativity can be unleashed to serve individual families and the broader human family.

At this point we wish to make a further distinction. In addition to the interplay of markets and culture, there is also the phenomenon of the culture of the market. Every market is a unique historical instantiation of a set of principles acted upon by a given people. No two markets are identical. Each nation and culture will develop a slightly different market culture, a different way of conducting business, of treating others at market, of agreeing to contracts, of treating workers, and so forth. To distinguish between the way in which a market is conducted and the principles of free-market economics is an essential task in any moral analysis of market activity.

In this respect, we agree with Wilhelm Roepke, who states clearly that we need to differentiate “between the principle of a market economy …and the actual development which …has led to the historical form of market economy.” We see the need to differentiate between a theoretical social order called capitalism and the way that order has taken form in particular cultures. In this sense, we stand opposed to those who define capitalism as the economic and cultural essence that exists in the Western world today. When abuses occur it is a sign that the culture of the market is poorly formed and not in synchronicity with human nature and moral values.

The Profit of Solidarity

Yet a healthy culture will not guarantee a healthy market. Given the objectivity of human nature it is safe to speculate that the practice of solidarity will lead to a healthier market environment. Pope John Paul II recognizes this fact when he calls for a culture of global solidarity to accompany and guide the developing culture of globalization.

Clearly, we do not want to functionalize the ever-important virtue of solidarity. We must accept our social responsibilities and affirm all our brothers and sisters in the human family whether it be immediately profitable or not. I am not elucidating a utilitarian argument here.

Rather, I am pointing to the subtle yet profound truth that the degree to which we achieve solidarity will also be the degree to which we achieve genuine human development on all levels, including the economic. For what, on a practical level, is the practice of solidarity if not the mutual service of one another? And what, on a practical level, is good business but serving the needs of others? Granted, there are significant differences between love of neighbor and business, but perhaps not as many as one might imagine at first.

The example of the family demonstrates the relationship between solidarity and genuine human development. The failure of solidarity at this level, manifested in the infelicities of divorce and single parenthood, for example, tends to evoke or, at least, to aggravate the problems of educational deficiency, economic hardship, and even physical abuse. Where an intact and loving family is in place, on the other hand, economic and emotional stability generally inhere as well.

If I may speak as such—the profit of solidarity is manifold. Solidarity is a social virtue that bears many fruits and blessings. These blessings come in a variety of forms and affect the entire human reality. Solidarity yields the “pay-off” of a healthy society, a thriving economy, the care of the needy and marginalized, and structures that protect the family.

Concluding Remarks

We speak well of a market economy not because we embrace an ideology of the market or practice an idolatry of the market. It is, instead, because of our respect for human liberty and our desire for social structures that affirm the dignity of all. This implies finding an economic system which, while providing outlets for human freedom in the market place, can also help alleviate poverty, increase general standards of living, respect private property, and minimize coercion. We seek economic growth, but not for its own sake. Rather than mere growth, we seek genuine human development, a component of which is economic growth. Genuine human development implies growth that is aimed at human betterment and the furthering of the common good. Growth must be for the increased welfare of the community and the individual, and not for the isolated improvement of a select few.

The free market is defined as an economic system where the majority of the people are economically free. This means that they all have the opportunity to choose and live in accord with their vocation. Toward that end, they must have access to the physical capital needed to earn a living, whether producing for their own consumption on a farm or producing for exchange in an enterprise where they earn a just wage. Such a system is, nearly by definition, a just economic order. The dignity of the human person leads us to conclude that a society in which most are free, in the sense explained above, is a just social order; hence, a free-market economy is a just social order.