When I was a freshman in college, a woman who looked like a whole-earth hippie asked me if I had a personal relationship with Jesus. The question struck me as a strange one. Yet I found myself compelled to hear her out, and began to hang out with the young people in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter she led, even though their conspicuous use of the word “Jesus” and group prayer made me uncomfortable. Eventually, their faith became my own.
At roughly the same time, my coursework in economics exposed me to free-market thought. I was completely sold. Adam Smith. Friedman. Hayek. The virtues of the invisible hand excited me as much as my growing Christian commitment.
Laissez faire was nearly a second conversion.
As a budding libertarian, I felt distaste when I saw our InterVarsity chapter leader carrying a Bible study guide on social justice. She was benighted, I thought. To me, it appeared that the race-baiters, welfarists, and union apologists played on her soft heart.When my chemical engineer father complained about management decisions at his corporation that he felt maximized managerial bonuses for short-term results while damaging the ability of the company to compete over the long run, I defensively lectured him about the spectacular built-in intelligence of markets. The right thing would be done, I argued, because doing the right thing is ultimately profitable and efficient.
Several months ago, I heard a story that forced me to give more careful thought to my views on the built-in morality of the market. A large airline on the brink of bankruptcy in 2002 asked employees to make substantial wage concessions. They agreed. The airline returned to profitability, and management acknowledged that it had the workers to thank, but in the subsequent years, instead of restoring the wage concessions, it awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to executives.
When pressed by reporters, the airline’s spokesman said the bonuses were necessary to retain top managerial talent. Pilots and other airline personnel could not leave because the airlines’ seniority systems would require them to start over at a new company. In effect, the workers could not easily punish the airline for failing to pay them back, so it was in no hurry to do so.
The story jarred me. Somehow, I had never applied my Christian conception of a sinful world to corporate behavior. In hindsight I realize my faith should have cautioned me against too easily deferring to the idea of the sufficiency of the invisible hand to produce justice.
Reading Christians from the past reinforces the idea that the fusion of quasi-libertarian economics with Christian ethics is not always an obvious fit. G.K. Chesterton, for example, was tremendously concerned with the dehumanizing effects of a rapidly advancing free market economy. Catholic social thought has long resisted socialism while still sharply pointing out abuses in market economies. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum is an excellent example addressing the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.”
Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, are largely absent when it comes to criticizing unfair labor practices, questionable methods of executive compensation, and other varieties of irresponsible corporate citizenship. My guess is that we tend to stay out of these areas is because we generally accept the idea that the market, left unhindered, will produce good outcomes. (I think the left feels the same way about sex.)
Experience and prudence have demonstrated that free markets are demonstrably better than other alternatives. But the problem is that we have tuned our antennae in such a way such that they pick up market problems like the promotion of hedonistic vice but do not take adequate notice of other wrongs. Thus, conservative evangelicals are quick to protest against 7-11 carrying Playboy magazine but are slow to call to account the corporation that deals with employees in bad faith.
Without Christ this is a world in which the strong will abuse the weak, the rich ignore or exploit the poor, and those with authority seek advantages for themselves as they exercise their power. We know these things both from the Scriptures and from examining our own hearts.
If our cultural critique is to have integrity, we must simultaneously respect the market and call the corporate sector to righteousness in its business dealings. As uncomfortable as Mike Huckabee’s concerns with executive compensation made many Republicans, his words suggested a healthy willingness critically to examine corporate behavior. If we question corporations when they produce bad products like pornography and gambling operations, then we necessarily accept the notion that the logic of free markets does not insulate them from critique when they commit other types of wrongs.
Francis Schaeffer (still a model for some Protestants) is generally remembered as an advocate for the Christian worldview. What has often been forgotten are his strong words about American materialism. Schaeffer lauded the hippies for their diagnosis of the ills of our society. Americans, he charged, are addicted to personal peace and affluence.
For a long time my natural instinct, the one that kept me deaf to the complaints of those claiming to have been treated unjustly, has been to defend the corporate estate against all criticisms. We must not be so passive even toward a system that has provided so well for most of us. Is the answer more government? No. The answer is to consistently call for righteousness.
Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism, to be published by Crossway Books in August 2009. He serves on the political science faculty at Houston Baptist University.