Almost everyone has heard economics referred to as “the dismal science.” And if you took a course in macroeconomics you probably recognize that the appellation was given by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. But what few people realize is that Carlyle coined the term in an 1849 magazine article titled Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question in which he denounced the two groups within the UK who championed the cause of antislavery: market economists and evangelicals.
Today we have become so accustomed to hearing criticisms of free market economics from socialists, Marxists, and other extremes of the political left that we find it difficult to imagine that it being opposed by conservatives. Attitudes toward the market economy, however, have less to do with the political spectrum than they do with the conception of who should retain control over economic life. Progressives, fearing that no one is in control and that powerful will take advantage of the weak, believe the state must step in to prevent inequitable and unjust outcomes. Conservatives (as we would define them today), by contrast, put their faith in the system itself and believe that left unhindered by the state, is sufficient to lead to the best possible end result. Libertarians, who view markets as morally neutral, contend that the individual, when allowed total liberty, will usher in the ideal end state. While all of these positions have some merit, they all ultimately fail when they leave out the most significant reason for putting our trust in the markets: because all control ultimately belongs to God.
Recognizing this fact, however, does not release homo economicus from all responsibility. A market is, after all, merely a mechanism for buying and selling goods and services. And while it is often viewed as highly individualistic and selfish, the fact remains that markets cannot exist without a network of humans in relationship with one another. As with all human interactions, though, our natural proclivity to sin can have a detrimental effect. Market forces and outcomes are prone to injustice and inequitable distribution precisely because man is by nature a sinful creature.
As Christians, we can never embrace any system or institution without being wary of how we are likely to abuse it for our own depraved purposes and rationalize our reasons for doing so. This is the primary reason we cannot fully embrace either a conservative or libertarian view of market economics.
But we should also be leery of falling for the progressive tendency to believe that government is the proper defender against economic injustice. While we might agree that protections are often necessary, we should reject the notion that the state has the moral authority to carry out that task. As William McGurn writes in Is the Market Moral?, it is naive to expect government to properly counter powerful market forces when the state has a monopoly on power. Indeed, there are few examples in history where government has circumvented the natural inclinations of its citizens in order to make a market more moral.
If governmental intervention is not the answer, how then should we show concern for the poor? By providing them the opportunities, the resources, and the freedom to more fully enter the market economy. As McGurn points out, “For the poor the real danger is almost never markets and almost always the absence of them.”
“It strikes me as not a coincidence,” adds McGurn, “that the God who made thinking beings in his own image appears to have put us in a world in which our wealth and well-being depend not only on our own freedom but that of our neighbors.”
How odd it is that we believe that free markets are beneficial for our own lives yet reject it as a solution for our neighbors. We wouldn’t accept having our own economic freedom and access to markets stifled by an intrusive government yet we often believe this is the best option for “the poor”, whether in our own inner cities or on the continent of Africa. Why is there two sets of standards for how to increase freedom and prosperity?
In a post on ethics and markets, Andy Morriss recounts an anecdote he heard on the radio:
One minister recounted how another minister had told him how God had answered his prayers and healed a headache the second minister had before a major sermon. The first minister commented on how arrogant the second minister was, to demand a miracle to cure his headache when God had already provided aspirin. Surely it is arrogant for us to pray for miracles to relieve drought and poverty when God has already handed us the means to do so – markets. Again, however, we rarely hear moral criticism of those who refuse the miracle of the market and insist that God (or someone) perform the far greater miracle of making economic planning work.
This raises an interesting question for Christians: Does God’s sovereignty not extend to markets? If so, then why do we expect, as Morris says, for God to circumvent the institution he has created and provided for our well-being by providing a “miracle?” The primary reason, in my opinion, is that we no longer think theologically about economics. While we evangelicals often form our views on such institutions as marriage and the family from our theology, we acquire our understanding of markets from our politics. If we subscribe to a progressive politics, then we adopt the Left’s criticism of markets. If we subscribe to conservative politics, then we embrace the Right’s unquestioning allegiance to unfettered markets.
What we need is a third way. We need a clear Christian vision that understands that markets are a moral sphere (contra the libertarians). We need to promote the idea that free individuals rather than government force is necessary to carry out this task (as the left often contends). We need to realize that the “market” is not a mystical system that will miraculously provide for our neighbor (as many conservatives seem to think). What we need is develop a coherent Biblically-based conception of how the market as a human institution can be used for the redemptive purposes of our Creator. As with every institution, what the markets need is for Christians to act more like Christ.