Faith in Markets?

Excerpts from Gary A. Anderson’s article “Faith and Finance” in First Things.
“But by putting such emphasis on social policy and the equitable distribution of resources, a distinctive element of charity, theologically considered, has fallen from view. Early Judaism and Christianity placed an extraordinary value on direct service to the poor for other reasons…

Why, one might wonder, has this classic approach to almsgiving fallen from view in our era? Surely one cause has been the rise of the modern state, which has allowed laypersons to shape public policy in a way unimagined in the patristic period. As a result we have developed a larger interest in redistributing income legislatively than in providing a rationale for sacrificial giving on the part of the laity.

But this transformation of almsgiving into a form of redistribution of income has also allowed a crucial aspect of this theological virtue to fall from view. Service toward the poor becomes a means of rectifying social inequities rather than a theological claim as to how the world is ordered. There is, of course, much to be commended in these legislative efforts. Breaking the back of structural poverty should be the desire of every Christian. But it is worth recalling that many Catholic laity were already worried about the increasing role of the state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Echoing the theology of Daniel, they complained: “If the state assumes responsibility for feeding the poor in place of us, how will we be redeemed?” Almsgiving was not just a Lenten discipline; it was the backbone of Christian identity.

The credit market might consider what it can learn from the biblical view of redemption. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 1985, the economics profession

    holds that the market is incompatible with ethics because voluntary ‘moral’ actions contradict market rules and drive the moralizing entrepreneur out of the game. . . . The market’s inner logic should free us precisely from the necessity of having to depend on the morality of its participants. The true play of market laws best guarantees progress and even distributive justice. . . . This determinism, in which man is completely controlled by the binding laws of the market while believing he acts in freedom from them, includes yet another and perhaps even more astounding presupposition, namely, that the natural laws of the market are in essence good (if I may be permitted so to speak) and necessarily work for the good, whatever may be true of the morality of individuals.

If we have learned anything from the credit crisis, it is that the things of this world are inherently uncertain. The market is not a computer that automatically spits out the correct answer. Sloth, gluttony, and vanity can distort the perception of market participants—creating the illusion of value where there is none and obscuring underlying values when fear and panic prevail.

In the marketplace, as in all other aspects of life, there is no mechanism that substitutes for morality. Who can deny that if our politicians and bankers had displayed greater trustworthiness—if they had humility before the uncertainties of valuation and greater concern for the effect of their actions on others—then this crisis would be less painful?”

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