My wife and I will have lunch at Chick-fil-A today. It’s not an uncommon experience in our family, since our son works there. (For the record, he and his sister are on a mission trip this week, working with immigrant kids, so they won’t be joining us. Also, for the record, my son is a Boy Scout, so he’s about as politically incorrect as it’s possible for a teenager to be.)
But I’m not writing this to announce our family’s fast food preferences or habits. Rather, I’m writing to suggest something about the limits of markets, disagreeing ever so slightly and subtly with my friend Jordan Ballor. Here’s what he says:
One of the great virtues of the free market system is that the customers get to decide what they value and why….
So if you don’t care one way or another about this issue, or don’t care about your service provider’s position (or lack thereof) and are “hungry for a chicken sandwich,” you, like Parler, will “eat at Chick-fil-A.” Such action just tells us that you don’t care to consider such things in making your decision to engage in a particular economic exchange.
But that doesn’t mean it is inherently wrong, or worse, indicative of an unchristian worldview, to take into account such things if you are moved by conscience to do so. This is, after all, why many people are motivated to buy fair trade or organic goods, or take into account any other number of subjective considerations in their valuation of a good or service. This is the same motive that is behind much of the impetus to pursue socially responsible investing (SRI).
In Jordan’s view, the free market enables consumers to base their preferences on whatever considerations they wish, to value what they wish to value in whichever way they wish to value it. If I wish to express my political or cultural support for my son’s employer, not just my appreciation of its product, I can do so.
Fair enough. But it seems to me that those who laid the intellectual and theoretical foundations for free markets imagined that they were taking some of the venom out of the political arena, replacing political passions with economic interests. The former, they thought, were all too often nonnegotiable; the latter always had a price.
But our experience, born of the wealth created by these markets, is that we have the luxury of embodying even political preferences in our market behavior. To some degree, at least, politics recolonizes the marketplace. The bold promise of the classical liberals to distinguish between politics and markets, between private and public, might have to give way to the older understanding, articulated in the first instance by Aristotle, that suggested that oikonomike (household management) isn’t just about wealth and acquisition, but also about virtue and character, something it shares with political life.
Now, I don’t want to go as far as Aristotle does down this path, because I do wish to place limits on the character-forming activities of government, leaving room (above all) for civil society and the churches that are among its most important institutions. But I do wish to stop short of embracing the original overweening promise of free market liberalism. We not wired to make the nice distinctions they expected. And that’s a good thing, because we’re not supposed to be able to put a price on everything.