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Posted March 25, 2004

Book: Is the Market Moral? A Dialogue on Religion, Economics and Justice
Authors: Rebecca M. Blank and William McGurn
Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., pp. 151

An excerpt from the Jacket:

In the great tradition of moral argument on the nature of the economic market, Rebecca Blank and William McGurn join to debate fundamental questions: equality and efficiency, productivity and social justice, individual achievement and personal rights in the workplace, the costs and benefits of corporate and entrepreneurial capitalism. And they do so grounded in both economic sophistication and religious commitment.

. . .This book grapples with the new imperatives of a global economy while working in the classic tradition of political economy, which has always treated seriously the questions of morality, justice, productivity and freedom.

An excerpt from the book:

I am not promoting the view that the church must issue proclamations about current economic issues, although some churches may of course choose to do so. I am suggesting that integrating Christian faith and economic life is crucial for anyone who wants to be a practicing Christian in modern society. Market economics raise questions that relate to deep issues of faith. The church needs to provide space and opportunity for people who want to explore those questions to do so. The attempt to keep “separate sphere” between the church and economy is not a faithful response. Neither Jesus nor the biblical prophets shy away from thinking about how their faith relates to their economic world, nor should we.

Second, the church is as an institution needs to speak for alternative values in civil society. The church need not preach against markets, but it should hold market outcomes to the same set of judgments and fath tests t which it holds other forms of human interaction. I would argue that the church needs to speak for the value of other-interested behavior in a wider array of situations, more directly challenging the prevailing secular opinion that self-interested behavior is always inevitable and often preferable. The church needs to talk realistically about how other-interested behavior may apply outside of family and close friends and what its implications might be for employers, workers, and economic institutions. The goal is not to covert all church members into entirely other-interested economic actors. Self-interest is a reasonable response in many situations; the question is how to balance one’s self-interest and other-interest. When market values (efficiency, productivity, incentives) become core secular values, the church needs to serve as a counterweight.

It may be particularly important for the church to speak of the concept of “common good” and to recognize the importance of community to the individual. Shared values are essential in any society, and religion is a force that should help shape those values. Such values are reflected in individual behavioral norms, in voluntary community behavior (through churches and other community institutions), and in government behavior in a democratic society. More attention to social ethics can provide an alternative to market models of self-interest and can offer people a language and a framework for understanding the role of the individual within the broader community and the role of government within society.

The church’s role should be to speak out against the forces that oppress and limit human potential and that stunt the expression of human love. In many traditional economies, this may require that the church speak out for the values promoted by markets — that it communicate some of the human costs of government corruption or of inefficient and bureaucratized economies. In these circumstances, the church may speak in favor of the expansion of markets and the values that are embedded in markets. But in modern market economies, the secular temptation is to give the market too much power. In this case, the church must speak more often for the values that markets do not fully incorporate.

The role of the church is not to be “antimarket” or “promarket,” but to be life-affirming. In cases in which markets and incentives promote better life opportunities, the church should affirm this, but when the market limits opportunity and creates human misery, the church must call the market to judgement and open a conversation about alternative institutions and social responses to the problem. This requires developing a language and a framework that allows citizens to grasp the values that the market ignores or sidelines.

. . .In short, theologians and economists need each other. Theologians and religiously informed activists need to have some grasp of how the economy really works if their critiques are to be taken seriously. Obversely, market economists, if they are not to succumb to the same self-destructive hubris as the socialists, need a religiously informed culture to remind them that economics is made for human being and not vice versa.

The pope has said repeatedly that man’s destiny is freedom, genuine freedom. We know, from the considered experience of the century past, that markets work better than control, that markets require law and not simply license, in short, that freedom works — and, if we are Christians, that it works not because it sanctions greed but because it is more in accord with our God-created human natures. To reduce this to a question purely about the degree of intervention is to treat it as a purely mechanical issue when it is much larger. Perhaps I have left the impression that regulating an economy into morality is bad because such an approach imposes too much on an economy. What I really believe is that that approach imposes far too little on us.

Table of Contents:

I. Introduction
E.J. Dionne Jr., Jean Bethke elshtain, and Kayla M. Drogosz

II. Viewing the Market Economy Through the Lens of Faith
Rebecca M. Blank

III. Markets and Morals
William McGurn

IV. A Reply to McGurn
Rebecca M. Blank

V. A Reply to Blank
William McGurn

VI. Creating a Virtuous Economy
Rebecca M. Blank

VII. Creative Virtues of the Economy
William McGurn