Roman Catholic priest and founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Fr Robert Sirico has done his readers a great service in laying out the moral foundations of the free market. Whether the reader agrees with him or not (and I do agree with him), his new book Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy helps clarify why the free market is not simply a useful but a morally good. This is, as he points out at the beginning of the book, a daring argument to make.
Daring though the argument is, especially for a Catholic priest, it is also essential that it be made since for too many people (including business people), free market economic theory and policies are little more than a justification for greed. While not denying the excesses of capitalism and real sins of capitalists, Fr Sirico wisely doesn’t allow sin to have the last word. Rather, and like St Augustine who inspired his own spiritual journey, he helps us see the goodness hidden beneath the distorting effects of moral failure.
Though irenic in tone, Sirico is unwilling to cede ground to those who imagine—wrongly in his view—that “socialism, liberalism, collectivism, and central planning” (p. 185) are morally superior and more effective in generating wealth. They aren’t and however noble the intention they are come up morally and practically short because they neither anthropological sound nor effective in caring for the material needs of the human person. The latter is especially the case when we turn to the needs of the most vulnerable among us. It is the free market that best fits the truth of the human person. And it is only the free market that has demonstrated the ability not only to lift the human person out of the poverty that was the almost universal lot of humanity even as late as 200 years ago.
But is the moral argument that is at the heart of the book’s.
Absence of a clear understanding of the moral foundations of the free market, policy disagreements turn into little more than shouting matches between those jockeying for their own advantage. If we have any hope of transcending mere selfish self-interest we must understand the end—or moral goal—of our economic activity and so our public policies. To do this we must understand what it means to be human in full.
For the answer to what it means to be fully human, Sirico turns to the Judeo-Christian tradition. He does so because it is his “own tradition” and it is also the “tradition that I know best I know best, doctrinally and historically, and it goes without saying that I have a special appreciation for its social contributions and its theological truth claims (to which I’ve dedicated my life).” That said, he continues,
I do not mean to suggest that this tradition is the exclusive contributor to the development and maintenance of economic freedom. The trick, it seems to me, is to be able to identify on the one hand the unique and undeniable contribution that Judeo-Christian revelation and anthropology played in the institutional development of liberty in the world, and yet not to close the door on how the truths about human liberty can be understood—discernible as they are through the natural reason—in other philosophical or theological contexts. In the end, of course, that is not my task or competency. I leave that to others more qualified and knowledgeable about how this would play itself out in, for example, a Hindu or Islamic context” (p. 186).
In saying this, Fr Sirico offers a testimony to the true power of the ideas he defends. Freedom and liberty are only possible when we love of truth and live lives of virtue. Those persons and communities who live this way are truly free and, as a sign of their freedom, can be both fearless and generous in the face of even substantive differences.
More than a book on that defends the moral foundation of the free market, Fr Sirico offers us a primer on a life well lived. It just so happens that he does so while discussing economics.