Why Christianity Will Never Be at Peace with Free Markets

More than any recent Christmas season, Christianity’s position regarding free markets is a hot topic of discussion. This is owing to the appearance of Evangelii Gaudiuman apostolic letter authored by Pope Francis I. Helping the message of that letter resonate further was Time magazine’s announcement of Pope Francis I as man of the year for 2013.

Pope Francis Holds His Weekly General Audience

In the commentary that ensued over Evangelii Gaudium, both the advocates and opponents of laissez faire economics highlighted this passage from paragraph 54:

some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

As many others have ably controverted the Pope’s assertions, I will not reiterate the point that the free market is the best friend of the poor.  Instead, I’m going to briefly explore why Christianity has traditionally been in tension with the market economy — even if, correctly understood, Christianity has no political or economic doctrine and therefore leaves its votaries free to adopt whatever modes of production best fulfill their worldly needs.

Christian opposition to free markets ultimately flows from three facets of that religion’s beliefs and history:

1. Other-Worldly focus: Christianity holds that the world we currently inhabit is an imperfect place where our souls are sternly tested in the quest for paradise after death, where our complete fulfillment awaits. Other-worldly concerns, it is true, are now less emphasized than they were prior to the 17-18th century Enlightenment period.  Christians today talk more about the dignity of the person and social justice in the here and now than they do about preparing for eternal life. Still, a regard for the next world lies in the background with respect to the charge that free markets encourage people to falsely place their happiness in material goods rather than spiritual values.

2. Solicitude for the Poor: While not necessarily closed off to the rich, Christianity offers a belief system that is especially appealing to the poor. After all, its promise of bliss in the next life enables the poor to accept their plight in this life, which is why Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. It is no coincidence that Christianity originally grew mostly by gaining adherents among the urban proletariat in the Roman Empire. Inasmuch as the poor have been a key market segment, as it were, for Christianity, its theologians and priests have always had a strong motive to retain the loyalty of less advantaged groups by supporting political ideologies that seemingly favor the working classes. Add to this the cognitive bias that predisposes the mind to conclude that the way to make a poor person better off is by simply redirecting resources towards them from wealthier members of the community. The net result is the state of affairs that we’ve witnessed since the ascent of capitalism in the 19th century — that is, one in which any set of ideas that justifies restricting, or even abolishing, private property rights finds avid followers among Christianity’s most influential thinkers. 

3. The Ethic of Self-Abnegation: The New Testament is pretty clear that we are obligated to overcome our selfish impulses and constantly help others with a self-denying love.  Free markets collide with this injunction by sanctioning the notion that people can legitimately interact with others via trade and exchange whenever it is in their self-interest to do so. Observing alongside the authority of Adam Smith that this pursuit of self-interest redounds to the public good does nothing to get around this fundamental opposition. For the Christian demand to love others involves a moral criterion that judges people on the purity of their intentions, rather than the over-all consequences of their actions.  Steve Jobs may have generated more prosperity than Mother Theresa, but a good Christian will insist upon the moral superiority of the latter because she consciously sacrificed herself to assist others.

This last aspect of Christianity is precisely why it will never fully come to terms with the free market.  Even if its leaders were to acknowledge that the market system merely responds to, instead of stoking, consumer demand for earthly goods; even if they were to recognize that the market economy could just as easily accommodate a more spiritually minded population with a diminished yearning for the pleasures and conveniences of this life; even if they were to imbibe the principles of sound economics and comprehend the social benefits that the market produces through spontaneous orders — even if all this were to become the case throughout all of Christendom, the fact would remain that market transactions are not gifts of self.

When it comes to economics, the best we can legitimately hope for from Christianity is for it to tolerate the market as the best we can do in a world where selfishness is ingrained to the human soul. The worst, however, we can expect from Christianity is what Pope Francis sadly appears to be leaning towards — that is, the replacement of the market by something allegedly more selfless.

9 Responses to “Why Christianity Will Never Be at Peace with Free Markets”

  1. Kevin Gagnon says:

    Tom Woods is a Catholic and a strong libertarian that writes a lot on this topic. Myself I'm Christian and I've gotten into some conversations where I was attack real hard with harsh words from catholics who support the government. I've come to learn that you got to be careful talking to catholics regarding free markets. They can get real heated. I was told once that when you go after statism you are essentially calling there mother a name. They take it real personal. Lesson learned.

    Northern Ontario Liberty Movement

  2. Devin says:

    I'm pretty sure the estimated 50-150 million people tortured and murdered by the Catholic Church over the past 1500 years for not "voluntarily" tithing to the correct Church would also vehemently disagree with you, James.

    I seem to remember you writing a pretty good piece about cognitive dissonance on here not too long ago.

    • If you could point to evidence of that claim, I would appreciate it. I actually don't doubt such a thing occurred but it certainly doesn't occur today. And if it did, it was certainly wrong.

      • Devin says:

        The Church began killing unbelievers as early as the 4th century. Pagans, athiests, agnostics, deists, heretics, church splinter groups and anyone else not contributing to the flow of gold into Rome were exterminated with extreme prejudice right up until the 17th century.

        I didn't have the stomach to read it in it's entirety, but here is a paper that reviews many historical sources that cite these killings.
        http://www.cs.unc.edu/~plaisted/estimates.doc

        • Yes, I never denied there were violent inquisitions for non-believers. But killing to convert others is not exactly the same as literally forcing others to hand over a portion of their wealth. Money was likely a driving factor, but the inquisitions were, from my understanding, not totally about money.

          Thank you for the link anyway, I will definitely have to read.

          And my point still remains: taxation is different from tithe. The fact that some misguided – and apparently evil-hearted – members of the church carried out brutal killings does not dismiss that fact.

  3. Devin says:

    "…the precepts of market anarchism fit right in tune with Christian social teaching."

    But Christian social teaching is to the Church what campaign rhetoric is to the State.

    The leaders of Christianity will never endorse free markets, precisely because there is no coercion involved. It's hard for me to understand how someone like Robert Higgs can so fully grok the essence of the State, but then fail to see that the Church is just another flavour of the same dominance-over paradigm.

    The Church and the State have jostled over the centuries for the mantle of senior and junior partner, but they both use the exact same playbook. They're both hierarchical institutions that inculcate fear and guilt among the masses, and then offer to ease those anxieties for a hefty price.

    The political class says: "do all that we tell you to do and pay us a tribute, or else we will see to it that the rest of your life will be miserable."
    The priestly class says: "your eternal afterlife will be miserable unless you do all that we tell you to do and pay us tribute."

    "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." — Diderot

    • I vehemently disagree. Compulsory taxation is nowhere near what voluntary tithe is.

      And a church, which no one is forced to attend mind you, merely explains the precepts of what it sees as divine, or teleological, law. It's not forcing anything on you, it merely offers you a choice: follow the law laid out before you or risk damnation. Those are two very different things. One is a voluntary organization that teaches the truth of matters, the other a monopoly institution predicated on force.

      As my understanding goes, humans were given free will to either accept divine law or reject it. Again, there is no force used to compel.

      Issuing a quote damning the church fails to make your argument.

  4. Interesting post Tomas.

    Allow me to offer a different take. For a Rothbardian libertarian who fully buys into the market process as the most enriching social coordination system man can develop, the precepts of market anarchism fit right in tune with Christian social teaching. After all, there is no coercion involved. Capitalism is simply voluntary individuals trading the fruits of their labors.

    Some of us see this as the one true, non-violent means of social coordination that's situated comfortably within the kind of social relationship as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount.

    Of course, Christianity, and other religions for that matter, offer something more than an economic understanding of the world. They, in fact, offer a kind of metaphysical understanding of good, bad, moral, and immoral understanding of what it means to be a human being.

    Paramount to all of that is the Christian teaching (again, not limited to just Christianity) of teleological – or natural – law that deals with what man should do to live a good and righteous life.

    Asserting that free market capitalism is not compatible with Christianity misses the point. The latter is much more complex than a system of resource allocation – much more complicated in fact. Other prominent Austro-libertarians would agree, including Gary North and Robert Higgs.

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