You’ve likely heard the field of economics referred to as "the dismal science." And if you took a course in macroeconomics you probably recognize that the appellation was given by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. But what few people realize is that Carlyle coined the term in an 1849 magazine article titled Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question in which he denounced the two groups within the United Kingdom who championed the cause of anti-slavery: market economists and evangelicals.
In our day we have become so accustomed to hearing criticisms of free market economics from socialists, Marxists, and others from the political left that we find it difficult to imagine that it being opposed by conservatives. Attitudes toward the market economy, however, often have less to do with the political spectrum than they do with the conception of who should retain control over economic life.
Progressives, fearing that no one is in control and that the powerful will take advantage of the weak, believe the state must prevent an inequitable and unjust society. Conservatives—as we would classify them today—believe that markets unhindered by the state lead to the most equitable and just society possible. Libertarians, who view markets as morally neutral, contend that the individual allowed total liberty will create the ideal society.
While all of these positions have some merit, they all fail because they leave out the most compelling reason for putting our qualified trust in the markets: Because they are the primary means God has provided for us to carry out these economic tasks.
Recognizing this fact, however, does not release homo economicus from all responsibility for the way he acts in the market—for what he buys and sells. A market is, after all, merely a mechanism for the exchange of goods and services. While they are often viewed as highly individualistic and selfish, markets cannot exist without a network of humans in relationship with one another.
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.
As Christians, we can never embrace any system or institution without being wary of how we will abuse it for our own depraved purposes and how we will rationalize our reasons for doing so. This is the reason we cannot fully embrace either a conservative or libertarian view of market economics.
But we should also be leery of falling for the progressive tendency to believe that government is the proper defender against economic injustice. While we might agree that some agent should protect society and particularly the vulnerable against exploitation and abuse, we should reject the notion that the state has the moral authority to carry out that task. As William McGurn argues in Is the Market Moral?, it is naive to expect government to counter powerful market forces when the state has a monopoly on power. There are few examples in history where government has circumvented the natural inclinations of its citizens in order to make a market more moral, rather than serving the interests of those who control the government itself, whether businesses or bureaucras.
If governmental intervention is not the answer, how should we show concern for the poor? By providing them the opportunities, the resources, and the freedom to more fully enter the market economy. As McGurn points out, "For the poor the real danger is almost never markets and almost always the absence of them."
"It strikes me as not a coincidence," he adds, "that the God who made thinking beings in his own image appears to have put us in a world in which our wealth and well-being depend not only on our own freedom but that of our neighbors."
How odd it is that we believe that free markets benefit our own lives yet reject them as a solution for our neighbors' struggles. We object to having our own economic freedom and access to markets stifled by an intrusive government, yet we often believe this is the best option for our poorest neighbors, whether in our own inner cities or on the continent of Africa. Why are there two sets of standards for how to increase freedom and prosperity?
In a post on ethics and markets, Andy Morriss recounts an anecdote he heard on the radio:
One minister recounted how another minister had told him how God had answered his prayers and healed a headache the second minister had before a major sermon. The first minister commented on how arrogant the second minister was, to demand a miracle to cure his headache when God had already provided aspirin. Surely it is arrogant for us to pray for miracles to relieve drought and poverty when God has already handed us the means to do so—markets. Again, however, we rarely hear moral criticism of those who refuse the miracle of the market and insist that God (or someone) perform the far greater miracle of making economic planning work.
This raises an interesting question for Christians: Does God's sovereignty not extend to markets? If so, why do we expect God to circumvent the institution he has created and provided for our well-being by providing a "miracle"? The primary reason, in my opinion, is that we no longer think theologically about economics.
While we Christians often form our views on such institutions as marriage and the family from our theology, we acquire our understanding of markets from our politics. If we subscribe to a progressive politics, we adopt the Left's criticism of markets and support for government control over them. If we subscribe to conservative politics, we embrace the Right's unquestioning allegiance to unfettered markets.
What we need is a third way of viewing markets. We need a clear Christian vision that understands that markets are a moral sphere, contra the libertarians. We need to promote the idea that free individuals rather than government force is necessary to carry out this task, as the left often contends. And we need to realize that the "market" is not a mystical system that will miraculously provide for our neighbor, as many conservatives seem to think.
Most of all, we need to develop a coherent Biblically-based conception of how the market as a human institution can be used for the redemptive purposes of our Creator. Christians to spend less time treating the markets as abstractions and more time working within them as models of Christ-like behavior.
Thomas Carlyle, Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question