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 Gaudium, an 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.
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.