According to an author writing in a recent issue of The Nation magazine, “The religious Left is the only Left we’ve got.” An overstatement? Perhaps. However, it points to an interesting fact, namely that while the opposition to free markets and less government control has declined in recent years among the “secular left,” the political-economic views of the “Christian left” seem to remain stubbornly unchanged.
Why is this so? Why are the secular critics of the market mellowing while the Christian critics are not?
Perhaps one major reason is the different criteria by which these two ideological allies measure economic systems. The secular left, after more than half a century of failed experiments in anti-free market policies, has begrudgingly softened its hostility towards the market for predominantly pragmatic reasons. Within their camp the attitude seems to be that since it hasn’t worked, let’s get on with finding something that will. While this may be less than a heartfelt conversion to a philosophy of economic freedom, at least (for many) this recognition has meant taking a more sympathetic view of free markets.
However, within the Christian camp the leftist intellectuals seem to be much less influenced by the demonstrated failure of state-directed economic policies. They remain unimpressed with arguments pointing out the efficiency and productivity of the free market, or statistics and examples showing the non-workability of traditional interventionist economic policies. Why? One likely reason is that the criteria by which these thinkers choose to measure capitalism are fundamentally moral in nature, so much so that socialism, despite its obvious shortcomings, is still preferred because of its perceived moral superiority. In their eyes, the justness and morality of an economic system are vastly more important than its efficiency.
ff indeed the Christian critics of the market are insisting that an economic system must be ultimately judged by moral standards, we should agree and applaud them for their principled position. They are asking a crucially important question: is the free market a moral economic system?
Unfortunately, these thinkers have answered the question with a resounding “No!” They have examined the free market and found it morally wanting. Some of the most common reasons given for this indictment are that the market is based on an ethic of selfishness and it fosters materialism; it atomizes and dehumanizes society by placing too much emphasis on the individual; and it gives rise to tyrannical economic powers which subsequently are used to oppress the weaker and more defenseless members of society.
If these accusations are correct, the market is justly condemned. But have these critics correctly judged the morality of the free market? Let’s re-examine their charges.