A Moral Case for a Free Economy

Acton Institute's Co-founder Explores Free Market Economy in New Book

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, NOV. 29, 2012 (Zenit.org).- At a time when the global economic crisis is causing experts to revisit notions of economic infrastructures, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, by Father Robert Sirico, makes the case that a free market economy is capable of meeting society's material needs while promoting justice and morality to flourish.

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, of which Father Sirico is co-founder, is an initiative dedicated to the study of free market economics informed by religious faith and objective moral truths.

Following a meeting with journalists at the Acton Institute's Rome office to introduce his book, Father Sirico spoke with ZENIT about the aim of the book, Defending the Free Market, and how the free market economic model can be positively understood from a Catholic point of view.

ZENIT: What were some of the main points you hoped to communicate in this book?

Father Sirico: Among my objectives was to clear up the notion in people's mind that crony capitalism is the free market. A lot of people don't really get that point. They don't know how to make that distinction. The "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators in many ways reflect that confusion. If the "occupiers" understood that the greed of the bankers and their capacity to obtain money unjustly was in fact the result of government policies rather than the nature of the market itself – especially in the case of the housing crisis – they wouldn't be demonstrating on Wall Street; they would be demonstrating on Capital Hill.

The other thing is to help business people and religious leaders to understand that there is far more of a potential connection between what goes on in the market and what goes on in Church, and that there needs to be.

I say it, but I find myself having to repeat it many times, that in defending the free market, I'm not saying that the free market is the only moral system, or a system endorsed by the Magisterium of the Church. The Church doesn't do economics. It may reflect on policies, but it primarily does principles. And then, we measure to what extent those principles have been implemented in any given set of policy prescriptions.

I also want in this book to outline the danger of violating subsidiarity, the danger of expecting the State to do too much, to be too much, to be present too extensively in our lives, and in particularly in the institutions that we Christians and Catholics have created to enable us to proclaim the Gospel. I believe there is a real danger. And I think we've seen that danger today with what has happened to a number of our foster-care organizations that are being forced to provide services that we cannot morally provide, or the HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate, which is the threat on stilts.

ZENIT: In response to those Christians and Catholics who are hesitant about buying into the idea of a free market economy, how can one demonstrate that there are elements to a free market – or Capitalist – economy which are compatible to Catholic social teaching?

Father Sirico: There are a number of elements that can make the connection. I keep going back to this anthropological question because that's the beautiful way to do it. I think it was Chesterton who said that Catholicism is the religion of stuff, by which he was really addressing the Incarnational nature of the Church. We have incense, and bells, and candles, and vestments, and all these things. In other words – in a non-liturgical context – the material world is good. We see that in the book of genesis. And God places us in the material world and asks us to pursue sanctity there.

The moment he places us in the material world, he places us in the context of limitations and scarcity. This gives rise to economics – which means that we have to find a way that is in accord with our nature, that is ethical, that is appropriate, that is effective – to make use of nature for the glory of God. It is in the same way an architect who studies geometry uses that geometrical precision and technique to build the façade of a cathedral, and thereby rendering praise to God. So too in a different way, the entrepreneur, who discovers the use of something or the combination of other things and represents and organizes them and creates a network and a marketing campaign to build a business, that that architectural construct ends up sustaining many families who participate in that, and sustain many consumers in the sense that they buy a good or a service at a higher quality and for a lower price than they would have otherwise, thereby giving their family a little more money to use at their discretion; all of these things, too, can be considered rendering nature for the glory of God. And that's enterprise; that's business. I don't like the word "capitalism" because I think it's too narrow a word. I like "free economy," or "free market."

ZENIT: You include a number of anecdotes and personal experiences in your book – not something typically found in a book on economics. What made you decide to approach the topic of the free market in this manner?

Father Sirico: Two things were important for me: One is that it be accessible, and there is nothing more difficult to write than an accessible economic text. I've read too many of them to know the truth of that. It was important for me to write an accessible book. And, coming from my homiletic experience, one of the ways to do that is to tell parables – not just stories or anecdotes – but things that have an integral value that kind of emblemize the more abstract point that you are trying to make.

The second thing: The way in which we understand our world is to understand ourselves. It had to be an anthropological approach. I'm interested in an economic text called "Human Action," by Ludwig von Misis. It's not a Christian text, but there is a lot of insight into that book that we can apply and give a Christian dimension to. But I thought the telling of the stories from my own life would emphasize the more anthropological approach that I take to the economic question.