Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, recently released a new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, in which he aims to overturn common stereotypes of capitalism and dig into the real moral implications of free enterprise. Applying his usual wit and theological depth, Fr. Sirico delivers fundamental moral arguments for why capitalism does not , as the narrative goes, promote greed, selfishness, and cruelty, but instead leverages human creativity and generosity. More importantly, Fr. Sirico contemplates how we might use our economic systems to further realize our relationship with God and man.
In this interview with Remnant Culture, Fr. Sirico discusses some of the key topics of his book, including consumerism, Ayn Rand, equality, health care, and the common “caricature” of economic man.
Of course, I encourage you to read the book in full.
One of the most popular arguments Christians make against free enterprise is that it is based on or driven by consumerism. In your book, you argue that consumerism actually makes capitalism “impossible over the long term.” How so?
Of course, we all consume. That is a fact of life. The Christian concern is not with the fact that we have to consume things (as thought we were Gnostics who did not believe in the goodness of the created world), but that we not be consumed by things.
The capitalist cycle depends on people using whatever goods they have to produce something valuable for their neighbors, and making a profit in the process. People then reinvest their profit into expanding their business, and making more profit. It’s a virtuous cycle. If an individual immediately rushes out and spends every last cent he earns today, he would have nothing left over for reinvesting and expanding for tomorrow, and thus there would be no means for sustaining his business, not to mention obtaining daily necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.
In writing about your “undoing” as a leftist, you describe a moment when you realized that the questions you were asking about Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were similar to “the simple queries that the tall nun had posed to our First Holy Communion Class” — questions about who made the world, who God is, and why God made us. Why did studying economics inspire a return to these questions, and why are such questions important for us to consider when contemplating economics?
There is something “underneath” economics. Economics is not really about money and charts and statistics. It is essentially about human interaction. At the center of each economic transaction stands the human person. When we talk about tax levels or private property or inflation, we are talking about realities that have profound effects on the ways people live their lives, and the ways they interact with each other. When you see that economic conditions influence the decisions people make and alter their lifestyles, you realize that people react negatively to things they view as violating their intrinsic dignity. High tax levels can be immoral not only because of the negative effects they have, but simply because it is immoral to take an inordinate amount of what someone has worked hard to earn. Pope John Paul II has made clear that unemployment is a grave wrong because it jeopardizes the lives of workers and their families.
Studying these economic realities forces you to go back to those basic questions: Who is man? How much may a government justly take from its citizens? What are the limits of government? What are its responsibilities? Much more than numbers are at stake here: intrinsic human dignity, flourishing and rights hang in the balance.
Advocates of free enterprise are often assumed to be robotic devotees of Ayn Rand, the atheist novelist and promoter of a so-called “virtue of selfishness.” Yet you argue that Rand’s beliefs stand in conflict with the very free enterprise system she claimed to support. Where are Christians to find themselves between Randian individualism and Marxist collectivism?
Rand’s theory is self-defeating because it denies the fact that the free market is based on our social nature. She believes more in individuals than in persons. While championing individualism and autonomy, she forgets that contracts, communities, markets, language, trade, exchange — all these essential facets of the free market — would not exist if man were as naturally individualistic as she imagines.
However, the reality of man’s social nature does not legitimize Marxist collectivism. The mistake made by Marx — the same as that made by Plato, and the opposite of Rand’s — is to believe that there really is no individuality, and that human beings are basically no different from a herd of cattle: faceless, identical, with no unique thoughts, experiences, or goals, divided up into clearly defined “classes.”
A true Christian anthropology holds that society consists of unique, unrepeatable humans, each made in the Image of God in such a way that each contributes something to society that no other individual could. People complement each other through their varied strengths and weaknesses so that all may survive and flourish. In that way, Christianity acknowledges and respects each person’s right to autonomy within the realm of their own lives, while also maintaining the coherence of society as a whole.
You write at length about the dangers of making an idol out of equality. In pursuing equality, what should Christians be wary of? How do we pursue proper equality properly?
Perhaps a better word here is “equity” over equality. There are a number of very dangerous errors to avoid in the quest for equality. The most fundamental is the belief that material equality is the end-all and be-all of human existence, and thus that material inequality is intrinsically unjust. Aquinas recognized that it may be in accord with justice for one man to be richer than another. Justice is each man having what he deserves, and what each man deserves should be commensurate with what he has worked to earn, given the nature of private property.
A second mistake, and one almost as fundamental as the first, is the belief that there is and always has been a fixed amount of wealth in the world, so that the only way for the poor to become prosperous is for governments to give them the wealth of others. What many people don’t realize is that wealth is not inert. People grow wealth through entrepreneurship and innovation. Proof of this, and something that no one would deny, is that the world is far richer today than it was thousands of years ago, or even fifty years ago. That should make people realize that wealth is increased over time, and that with the right conditions, those who are currently mired in poverty can also improve their standards through work.
The right understanding of equality pertains to opportunity, wherein all people have equal access to better themselves, which in an economic sense means markets and the means of improving their own situations. The reason so many in the world are stuck in seemingly endless poverty is not because the United States or Western Europe is rich; it’s because the poor live under governments that do not ensure the fundamentals of the market structure, by discouraging or not permitting enterprise to function the way it would naturally.
Your book includes a brief religious history of health care, explaining how Christian views on mercy and charity led to new health care innovations such as the hospital. How has the role of Christianity in health care changed in recent decades, and what new challenges do Christians face in “healing the sick” given these developments?
Thomas Jefferson once said that the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. Unfortunately, this has proven to be true in many areas of life, including health care. The establishment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 was perhaps the defining moment in the federal government’s becoming a permanent player in the health market, and its participation has increased to the extent that there is virtually no truly free market for health care in the United States today. Tragically, it is the Christian, and specifically, the Catholic influence on health care that has suffered most as a result. By legalizing, condoning, and then subsidizing practices such as abortion and, increasingly, euthanasia, the federal government sends the very powerful message that these practices are morally permissible, and even a basic human right.
Witness the bold attack on Catholic hospitals by the Obama administration, particularly in their infamous HHS mandate that would require Catholic hospitals to give up their Catholic identity by providing morally objectionable “services.”
Catholic health providers now face the challenge of convincing people that the federal government is wrong in condoning and supporting such immoral actions. The Church will also have a difficult time continuing to provide the high quality health care that has emerged over the centuries, while attempting to avoid the federal government’s backlash. The challenges that we face — and let us be clear, this involves Catholics and non-Catholics alike — and the social unrest it may cause, should highlight the importance of religious freedom and economic freedom for the preservation of a just and flourishing society.
In the final chapter of your book (my personal favorite), you critique homo economicus as a mere “caricature” drawn with “bold and exaggerated lines,” and go further to argue that “any man who was only economic man would be a lost soul.” What is economic man lacking, and how do we avoid a society of “lost souls”?
Thank you. Put very simply, economic man lacks a heart. He is merely a calculator, designed to maximize everyone’s efficiency and his own benefit, at any cost. He is not concerned with altruism, generosity, or values higher than materiality. He is the “greedy capitalist” stereotype described in Chapter 5 of my book, and lampooned in such fictional characters as Rich Uncle Pennybags and Gordon Gekko.
Unfortunately, many believe that these caricatures are accurate depictions of the standard capitalist businessman. But cold, calculating self-interest is not the essence of economic freedom, and it is this error, rather than the market itself, that has caused many of the problems we encounter these days.
In order to rectify the problems caused by economic man, we must remember that economics is not man’s final purpose in life. At the end of the day, what matters most is that we do the Will of God. For those who realize that life on this earth is very short and that there is a life after this one, economics is not “the meaning of life.” It is a tool to be used for our material betterment, so that all people can live lives befitting our human dignity and so that humans may express their creativity as those who bear the imago Dei.
Those who live in poverty spend the majority of their time and efforts merely maintaining biological existence, while material abundance leaves people free for other, higher pursuits. Economic freedom is the most effective and moral way I know of to increase wealth, so that more and more people may live in relative abundance and be free to focus on what is really important in life: realizing our relationship to our God and Creator.