Sunday, January 25, 2009

Christ, Economics, and Free Market

In the 4th conversation organized by Templeton Foundation, the question 'Does the free market corrode moral character?' was discussed. 13 political scientist, economists, and policy makers were involved.

Here are some reflective remarks came out from the conversation:
"Most of us are consumers who try to get the best possible deals in the market. Most of us are also moral beings who try to do the right things in our communities and societies. Unfortunately, our market desires often conflict with our moral commitments...For example, when the products we want can be made most cheaply overseas, the best deals we can get in the marketplace may come at the expense of our own neighbors' jobs and wages...How do we cope with this conflict? Usually by ignoring it."
(Robert B. Reich)

" markets are not simply the absence of government. Markets depend on systems of law to decide what can be traded as a commodity and what cannot. Slavery is forbidden in modern market economies; so are blackmail and child pornography. Free markets always involve some moral constraints of this sort, which are policed by governments. More generally, free markets rely on property rights, which are also enforced - and often created - by government."
(John Gray)

"The free market's celebration of hedonism and autonomy has had its predicted effect on those with less cultural capital - the poor and, more recently, the working class. In low-income communities, the assault on norms of self-restraint and fidelity in personal relations has undermined both the extended and the nuclear family. In many such communities, divorce and out-of-wedlock births are becoming the norm."
(Kay S. Hymowitz)

"Like other aspects of a free and just society, free markets depend on individual morality - on taming our selfish passions and impulses and choosing the goals given to us by Nature and Nature's God."
(Rick Santorum)

"...Paul Samuelson aptly summed up the issue: "the problem with perfect competition is what George Bernard Shaw once said of Christianity: 'the only trouble with it is that it's never been tried.' "... Now that the financial crisis is upon us, however, the burden is largely falling not on the irresponsible few who created it but on the many who, against the counsel of traditional thrift and prudence, were lured into it - namely, the investors in overrated mortgage-backed bonds and borrowers whose homes are being foreclosed at record levels. "Fettered" capitalism has indeed corroded our moral character, by both privatizing the rewards of the market and (in the form of federal bailouts) socializing its risks. Both are betrayals of the free market and its genuine virtues."
(John C. Bogle)
Indeed the question is a big one. And as the virtue for being big, the question is usually ambivalent. Yet from the exchanges, we can mark a few converging points:
  • Free market is not politically free. That means government will always be in control of market regulations.

  • Commodity cannot be assumed as morally neutral. Types of goods and services are subject to value interpretation. For eg. prostitution, abortion clinic, branded garments, cocaine, gambling etc.

  • The integrity of market agents, including consumers and producers, must not be taken for granted. For eg. we cannot assumed that humans are generally greedy or altruistic. Humans are complicated.

  • The complex dynamics between market agents and the government is the platform to reach social and economic equilibrium.
Though these characteristics are contingent, yet we recognize that God is working within contingencies. How to answer questions poised by the economy has to depend on one's view on the 4 points raised above.

What is the role of government, be it secular or religious, in God's world? Where should the government derived its value from?

Are we in the right commodity competition? How do we ascribe value to products or services?

What is our human story? We recognize ourselves as fallen, finite, and dying creatures, which are unconditionally being loved by God, living in a world with limited resources and space. What does this mean to us?

How should the distribution of authority between individual citizens and government be managed? How much liberty should the relation between both serves as a negotiation platform for future direction for a nation? And what did Jesus mean by, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me"?

I've sketched the framework for further theological engagement. I'll leave it to you to find out.

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