Acton Institute Powerblog

The Christian Market?

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Joe Carter discusses “What the Market Economy Needs to Be Moral” today over at First Things: On the Square.

He rightly points to the twin errors of collectivism and atomistic individualism, each of which have been soundly criticized in Catholic Social Teaching, for instance.

I do wonder, though, given that Joe acknowledges the role of free individuals (not to be abstracted from their social relationships and responsibilities, of course) whether we need a “third way” as he proposes, or simply a framework for evaluating a variety of acceptable ways of engaging the market (or maybe that’s precisely what he means by a “third way”).

That is, if there’s no single Christian view of the government, why would there be a single Christian view of the market? The question becomes here more one of prudence than of mandate, and the “Christian view” of the market simply outlines the broad strokes of acceptable approaches.

Indeed, if as Joe concludes Christians are to “to spend less time treating the markets as abstractions and more time working within them as models of Christ-like behavior,” then there are a variety of approaches to modeling such behavior in the context of market exchange. And why the radical juxtaposition between theory and practice when the rest of the piece is really calling for a new theoretical framework?

There are a number of other interesting elements, perhaps even tensions, in Joe’s thought-provoking piece. I hope to follow up on those in the next day or so.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • This is from Václav Klaus’ 1999 speech, “The Third Way and Its Fatal Conceits,” in which he repeats his famous summation: The Third Way is the fastest way to the Third World.

    The Third Way remains to be a very vague concept which has no operational definition, which has not been properly defined. It blocks its serious discussion but it does not block its use and its irresponsible dissemination, and it does not devalue the promises it contains.

    It is not only vague, it is “wide” and expansive as well.

    The present-day exponents of third way thinking have been relatively successful in pretending that they endorse conservative economic policies which is, of course, not true. We should not be misled by their rhetoric. They never discuss details, they never reveal what they have in mind when they talk about regulation and they never suggest how to solve grave financial problems of high level of government expenditures on their social welfare programs.

    Carter is correct in saying that,”We need a clear Christian vision that understands that markets are a moral sphere … ” I would say there’s been plenty of reflection about the moral life of markets in the public square (and not just at Acton) since the financial crisis erupted now two years ago, and much much earlier than that. There’s a vast Christian literature on the moral life of business.

    But for those just getting into this, I recommend Claar and Klay’s Economics in a Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices. I wold jump to the section titled, “Striking Progress Despite Claims to the Contrary” and the discussion of economic globalization and the remarkable improvement of living standards achieved by the market economy in places like India and China.

  • Roger McKinney

    John, thanks for the Klaus comment. He is right on. Also:

    Carter: “Of course, as with all human interactions, our natural proclivity to sin leads us to mistreat and exploit others using the mechanisms of the market. Market forces and outcomes are prone to injustice and the inequitable distribution of goods precisely because man is by nature a sinful creature.”

    Carter seems to be totally oblivious to the centuries of debate by church scholars over this issue. It’s no different than the just price debate. As the church scholar determined centuries ago, the only just price, and therefore justice, is in a free market. Therefore, Carter is wrong. Free markets cannot produce injustice. Only coercion in the marketplace can cause injustice, and only the state is powerful enough to use coercion in the market. Any citizen who attempts it will be crushed by the market, as Adam Smith pointed out. And inequitable distribution of goods is not unjust if it results from free market activity and the rule of law. Inequitable distribution of goods can be God’s fault.

    Carter: “But we should also be leery of falling for the progressive tendency to believe that government is the proper defender against economic injustice.”

    Who is the “proper defender” then? The state’s role is to protect life, liberty and property.

    Carter: “If we subscribe to conservative politics, we embrace the Right’s unquestioning allegiance to unfettered markets.”

    Here Carter sets up a straw man so that he can defeat it and propose his alternative. There is no one on the right who give unquestioning allegiance to anything, and there is no one who believes in unfettered markets. Even the most radical anarchist insists on the rule of law. So then his “third way” comes out being what most libertarians want anyway. So he rejects the libertarian straw man he created in favor of real libertarianism.

    Carter: “Most of all, 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.”

    That has already been done. Read the Late Scholastics and Adam Smith.

    Libertarian economics is the essence of Biblical economics. The Bible sanctifies private property, but property equals control. Free markets are nothing but the instantiation of Biblical private property, for without free markets, owners don’t have control over their property and therefore don’t own it, regardless of whether they have a paper title to it. And Church scholars determined centuries ago that justice in the market can happen only with a free market.

  • Roger: Part of the problem, maybe a big part, is that economic terms as used by Christians today are often freighted with political values/ideologies. So you see phrases like “unfettered markets” or “unbridled capitalism” or “laissez-faire economics.” Or “libertarian.” In a mixed economy like ours, with increasing regulation, these don’t exist. Criticisms often come from well-meaning Christians with an instinctive and very natural revulsion to poverty and inequality, although their frames of reference are usually the income gaps in rich, industrialized nations.

  • . . . or maybe that’s precisely what he means by a “third way”

    My editor slipped that part about “third way” and I let it stand not realizing that it had changed my intended meaning. I’ve since changed it to “a third way of viewing market.” The phrase “third way” has too many connotations that imply the need for an alternate system. That is certainly not what I favor.

    I would prefer to have freer markets but that is hard to get in a country like ours that is dominated by corporate and governmental interests.

  • Joe,

    Sure, sure. Pull the old “my editor slipped it in on me” trick. Next you’ll tell me that the woman gave you the apple and reporters don’t write their own headlines.

    In all seriousness, though, thanks for clarifying.

  • Tom Grey

    What we need to be talking about are Peaceful, Honest markets, and deals, as compared to those of dishonest or involuntary kinds.