A conservative evangelical questions his uncritical embrace of laissez-faire economics.
When you think about it, the marriage between evangelicalism and free market capitalism is downright odd, and, as far as I can tell, largely confined to the U.S. (British evangelicals, for instance, seem quite a bit more left-wing on economics than their American counterparts).
I’m not saying that a Christian can’t be a free market libertarian; in this sinful and imperfect world we have to use our reason to determine the best set of social arrangements. But it does, on its face, seem strange that Christians, of all people, should think that the unhampered pursuit of self-interest would maximize the social good.
A libertarian counterargument might be that only laissez-faire provides sufficient check on various centers of power that would otherwise tend to become concentrated. But, whatever might be the case in the anarcho-capitalist utopia, in our world the concentration of economic power is a reality that seems to many people to require a public counterweight (anti-trust laws, regulation, etc.).
I don’t personally think that there’s any ideal social and economic system from a Christian point of view. We’ll always be responding to changing circumstances in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. But Christians can bring certain principles to bear on the discussion, such as a concern for the worst off members of society, an insistence on the dignity of the human person, and care for God’s creation. Implementing these principles, though, will require a knowledge of the principles of economics and an awareness that trade offs are inevitable.
Too, there’s a certain wisdom in the idea that the market has to be subordinated to human ends and needs. The market was made for man, not man for the market, we might say. This would seem to imply some role for public and democratic control of the economy, limited though it might be by the dangers of over-regulation.
This article from sociologist Peter Berger, though written in 1993, still seems pertinent, particularly this part:
It is clear that a market economy, once it has reached a certain level of affluence, can tolerate a considerable amount of governmentally managed redistribution. This, of course, is the basic lesson to be learned from the coexistence of capitalism with the welfare state. It should also be clear that this tolerance is not without limits. If political redistribution reaches a certain level, it must either send the economy into a downward spin (wealth being redistributed faster than it is produced) or dismantle democracy (to prevent those whose wealth is to be redistributed-a population which, as redistribution expands, will be very much larger than the richest group-from resisting). Now, it would be very nice if economists and social scientists could tell us just where this level is-one might call it the social-democratic tolerance threshold. Right-of-center parties in Western democracies perceive a very low threshold (each piece of welfare state legislation another step on “the road to serfdom”); left-of-center parties believe in a very high threshold, and some in that camp seem to think that there is no limit at all. What evidence there is clearly does not support either the disciples of Hayek or Swedish social democrats; but neither, unfortunately, does the evidence locate the tilting-point. Once again, a sort of “interim ethic” is called for, full of uncertainties and risks.
An “interim ethic” is a far cry from a blueprint for utopia, whether of the left or right. But it seems singularly appropriate for Christians to the extent that they recognize the complexities and frailties of a fallen world.