Acton Institute Powerblog

Watch Your Language

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In reading Is the Market Moral? (Brookings Institution Press, 2003), I have come across a passage containing what I suspect is a common misconception about markets.

"Unlike the market, which values people according to their resources and the productivity they bring to the market, Christian teachings on poverty ascribe value to a group that has no resources."

The problematic premise implicit in this statement is that ‘the market’ somehow bestows value and that the value it bestows is somehow absolute. But the ‘market’ is not a willful being; the market is a term for the free association of willful beings, namely persons. In the market — a particular sphere of human interaction — the involved persons do recognize certain types of value in other persons based on what those persons offer in that sphere. But recognition (or lack of it) of a person’s ‘value’ in a given sphere is not an absolute value judgment. The ontological value of the human person is inherent. But ‘market value’ is not the same as ‘ontological value’. The confusion comes with the word value: same word; different concepts.

Such confusion seems to be the hallmark of those who denounce the market for being ‘out-of-step’ with the mandates of the Christian faith. Perhaps a parallel will help to explain the problem: It would be silly to suggest that a hockey coach who cut from his team a boy who could not skate was somehow ignoring the boy’s value as a person. While it is true that the coach denies the boy’s value in the sphere of the game of hockey — that is, he has little value as a hockey player — the boy’s ‘absolute value’ does not depend on his ‘hockey value’. Likewise, to say a given person has less opportunity in a market because he has less to offer in capital is not to say that the market devalues that person in an ontological sense; a person’s ontological value does not depend on his market value.

I think the tendency to equate market judgment with ontological judgment is simply the residue of materialist Marxism, an ideology that claims reality — and thus real worth — is only to be found in material. While it sounds compassionate to denounce the market as an institution that ‘devalues’ those whom Christianity values, the truth of such denouncements is that they stem from semantic confusion (or trickery) and lead to actions down the road that deny true value.

Click here for suggested readings on human dignity and here for an extensive list of works that deal with value.

David Michael Phelps

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