Robert Sirico, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2012. 256 pp. $17.33.
Already this presidential race has provoked countless controversies. The party conventions exposed a diverse range of value systems, worldviews, and religious convictions regarding marriage, sexuality, sanctity of human life, and human dignity. Various factions clamor to define the future of our nation. And the ongoing jobs crisis perhaps makes economic debates more germane and inescapable than ever.
Economics is a science of moral behavior and freedom. It is the telltale of our greatest values—for better or worse. Though many books have been written on economics proper, fewer have attempted to distill economic principles in terms understandable to the common reader. Defending the Free Market is the latest of such works from Father Robert Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty (est. 1990).
Freedom and the Free Economy
In many ways, Sirico successfully charts the most significant arguments facing free market policies today. He keeps his case relevant, clean, and clear—avoiding academic jargon. He also supplies numerous anecdotes from his life as he moved from early left-wing social activism to becoming a fully committed Catholic conservative—now convinced economic liberty is essential to human dignity.
The particular strengths of Sirico’s work are in addressing particular questions at the heart of the moral debate—both classic and contemporary. These include: right to private property (25, 161-163), charity in a market economy (45-49), the profit motive (84-90), defense of equality and human dignity (163-165, 171), religious liberty (33-34, 120), state-run healthcare (135, 140-42), and extreme environmentalism (153-167). In most cases, Sirico clearly states these positions and their problems in clear and practical terms. More importantly, he observes the value systems and worldviews at the heart of our public differences (13-15).
Sirico’s most clear and comprehensive point comes in his chapter titled “Idol of Equality.” At one point Sirico distills the heart of the book:
Economic prosperity is the result of people being allowed the freedom to engage in enterprise because when they do so they bring with them the whole of their knowledge, talent, experience, and character, and what emerges is a grand symphony of diversity (in other words, of all those ways that human beings are unequal), an orchestration of talents, energies, needs, and interests, which may not have been the intention of any individual participant but is the result of all of them using their freedom.
If this sharing of energy and intelligence over the whole of society is not blocked and distorted by coercive intervention and manipulation by government, prosperity is the likely result. But the even greater benefit is that human beings are permitted to thrive, permitted to use their reason, courage, and imagination in positive ways not possible under economic tyranny, ways that bless them and others. This points to the central purpose of our social order: to construct an institutional arrangement, under law, whereby man can truly become man’s greatest resource (112).
In context, Sirico carefully avoids utopian idealism, but clearly argues that human flourishing cannot come apart from an extraordinary measure of human freedom. Certain non-coercive and non-directed liberty rewards morality, creativity, diligence, and ingenuity. Sirico also jabs many of the caricatures and straw-man argmuments of free-market opponents. For example, Oliver Stone’s fictional character Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street (1987) emphatically declares, “Greed is good!” Nothing could be further from the truth, especially for a principled capitalist. Furthermore, Ayn Rand is often referred to as a prophetess for free-market individualism, yet her radical construction forgoes the most important element of human design: community (93).
Finally, while this book is no theological treatise, Sirico incorporates a good deal of biblical and theological statements to inform his economic construction. For example, he notes the “imago Dei” and work in creation (156-57). He also explains sin as a distortion of human dignity and vocation (61-62). He demonstrates the value of the Good Samaritan as one who possesses both love and financial means to bless his neighbor (130). He also points to Paul’s warning to Timothy to guard against greed (111). Sirico’s final chapter, “A Theology for Economic Man,” offers the most detailed exposition of these issues and is perhaps the most helpful section for the theological reader.
Free and Moral?
As an idiosyncratic economic sympathizer, I often find myself nodding in agreement with Sirico—holding to many of the same principled positions. However, upon further personal reflection, many important issues inform our respective differences that Sirico either assumes or ignores. Namely, our view of economics carries classic assumptions of human nature and moral behavior that are inherently theological.
First, Sirico understands that any legitimate defense of economic liberty has to say more than “free-market capitalism will make you more prosperous and free.” For example, his moral argument often appeals to the love of God and neighbor (130, 147, 181). This becomes the impetus for a free economy compelled to do good rather than evil. While this would prove to be a sound defense for the casual reader, there is need for further discussion. What makes humans act as we do? If freedom is indispensable to a virtuous society, what compels a free humanity to act morally and not immorally? Paul, for example writes, “None is righteous, no, not one . . . their feet are swift to shed blood” (Rom. 3:10-18; cf. Ps. 14:1-3). Sirico rightly points to love as a proper axiom, but he doesn’t go far enough in explaining what compels humanity to act in certain ways—and there are no guarantees. Freedom alone doesn’t get us there. An autonomous creature is no more likely to be virtuous if he is still immoral. While I would certainly agree with Sirico and those like him, so-called freedom in application can differ vastly from cities like Sodom to Geneva. Therefore, this argument demands more of us.
Second, Sirico’s moral defense of freedom often begs the question concerning humanity itself. Every major Western theologian—including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin—has been forced to deal with sin at the heart of his theological anthropology. All differ to varying degrees concerning the totality of sin and its corruption of the human individual. Sirico points to “original sin” in his final chapter as fundamental to his understanding of “human dignity” and our “limitations” but stops short of any further discussion (179). Paul’s own question, “Who will free me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24) is most appropriate, especially in economics. Where does this question find consideration in grounding our economics? How do we address the problem of sin? Sirico points to the “incarnational” life and ministry of Christ, but only in a broad cultural sense (176-78). If we are more than “utility maximizers” and want to arrive at a level of truth beyond moral relativity, why is there so little discussion of sin’s antidote? Sirico seems to suggest that sin is more than what you do or what happens to you but falls short of explaining sin as what you are. The freedom and liberty argument must be made in the context of a full theodicy that explains human beings are the primary agents responsible for their own actions. Sirico never ultimately lands his argument.
Third, Sirico briefly engages with the eschatological significance of our present economic order. He quotes the words of Vatican II: “While we are warned that it profits a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose himself, the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one” (176). With this reference Sirico seeks to point to the greater importance of our work in the world and its eternal significance. There is nothing finally trivial or mundane on this earth. Christ’s taking on flesh demonstrates God’s presence and work in the world of the mundane. While I wholeheartedly agree as an evangelical, there are also many differences with respect to eschatological hope that inform our present work and interaction now. For example, the liberal Protestant movement of the early 20th century had an over-realized eschatology that dramatically emphasized the kingdom as “now.” Rauschenbusch and Fosdick championed their eschatological hope in the realm of kingdom ethics, with devastating consequences. So a careful moral argument demands more work.
Every Facet of Life
While the depth and breadth of this topic extends further than this book, Defending the Free Market primes the pump for deeper discussion. A free economy must be a moral one. Arguing for the free market requires due consideration for our moral condition and the knowledge that all our decisions have real and lasting consequences—extending beyond the individual to every facet of life. No economic exposition is complete without a proper theological framing of mankind. There we discover the true source of our homo economicus as being more than Smith and Marx, Keynes and Hayek, Rawls and Friedman, but also including Pelagius and Augustine, Ockham and Aquinas, Arminius and Calvin.
Ryan Helfenbein is a husband, father of two, and a PhD candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds an MDiv from SBTS and a BA in economics from the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a member and Adult Bible Fellowship teacher at Highview Baptist Church.