Paying for the Free Market

I read in the Winter 2016 issue of THE WHEEL (a new journal of Orthodox literature and thought) the article by Anthony Artuso, “On Dominion and Progress: Sacramental Action in a Secular World.”     Artuso makes a few interesting claims that I piqued my interests.  He says that …

“The original political idea of the  Enlightenment was to create a religiously neutral public sphere where governments supported by the will of the people, would make decisions to enhance  overall welfare.”

The proponents of the 18th Century European Enlightenment and their successors felt some oppression from the existing religious structures in Europe and the wars between Christians which were frequent at that time.   The movement toward separating church and state was an effort to disentangle society, government and religion in the hope that people might behave more rationally and less passionately in disagreements.  By pushing religion to a more private sphere, some thought people would behave more rationally.  The reality is that people don’t need religion to become passionately driven on issues as a number of communist atheist tyrants have shown.  Religion does not automatically lead to irrationality, nor does the absence of religion guarantee humans will be reasonable.

But relying purely on human reason, allowed them to imagine that commerce/ the market/ capitalism would serve the people by keeping individual greed in check.  The market had an interest in a moral order and in spreading the benefits it brought about to a wide range of people (or so they believed).   Artuso says the market was to be

“always under the guidance and management of the state, which alone was entrusted with safeguarding the interests of all.”

reaganThe state was in their idealist view the preserver of reason.  This may have been the ideal, but this ideal  in the 18th and 19th Centuries for Enligtenment advocates, but it must not have been working which led President Reagan to identify the government as the problem, not the solution to the problem.  But then, even under Reagan, the government grew and the national debt doubled.  The government may have been the problem, but his policies enlarged the problem.

Artuso says the drive for deregulation of the market was a response to a feeling that the government wasn’t in fact a benevolent guide for the free market but could be turned into a monstrous tool of political interest groups.  So the new idea came to be to free the market from government oversight.  Artuso puts it this way:

“We have entrusted ourselves to the invisible hand of the market which we vaguely conceive as being wielded for our benefit by the god of progress.”

Therein is a dilemma.  Adam Smith, the patron of the free market, apparently thought the government was to manage the market for the public good.  But in modern America, the government came to be viewed as part of the problem because the government proved not to be a neutral force in the free enterprise system.  It was a huge force that could be manipulated by interest groups to carry out agendas other than the general welfare.

But, the market freed to move as it wishes without government oversight becomes a large and largely undirected force.   What or who guides the market and for what purpose?   Perhaps we are to think that the unguided force of commerce is always benevolent, but what would make us believe that is not clear.  The market can be manipulated by organized forces with particular agendas.  Is it too big to allow it to go where it will?  Or in fact  will some clever folks be able to guide it to their own benefit without regard to the general welfare?

money

The market is driven by greed if by anything, and certainly does not want to keep greed in check.  The market imagines unbounded growth which, at least in recent years, certainly has benefited the wealthiest people.  Unbridled growth in the market (as well as in the government!) seems to fit the American attitude that wealth is a god which we should always serve.

Our money says on it, “In God we Trust“, but perhaps the god we trust in is money itself.   St. Paul warned that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).  We tend to think on the other hand that money is THE solution to every problem.  [Think also about how much money gets invested in our elections – some do think money can influence the direction of governement].   Wealth and more wealth are assumed to be always a good, the more the better.   The notion of any kind of self-control by individuals, commerce or the government is out of favor these days, or perhaps in America always is.

Wealth of course is not a god, is not infinitely wise and can, as we have experienced throughout history, suddenly disappear throwing the world into depressions and recessions.    Wealth is not a neutral force unaffected by the greed and powerlust of people.   It certainly is a major force in human life and history, but it never claims to be benevolent towards humans.   It is always being pushed and pulled in various directions.  And to imagine that ever increasing wealth can only produce more good, we might ask: Would an infinitely rich Hitler have created a better world?  To imagine that wealth or the market are simply neutral, and unmanipulable is to ignore history where people were always striving to use the market for their own goals.

Besides all of this, studies have continuously shown that increasing wealth does not automatically equate with people being  happier.   Certainly it doesn’t guarantee people being wiser, kinder, more generous, more humane, more civic minded.  Money can be a good servant, but it is a bad master.

People are attracted to power, and the free market represents a huge power in the world.  People have and will continue to attempt to use government, wealth, the market, for their own ends  This is the fact that we have to be aware of and prepare for.

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