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Markets and Morals (back to libertarianism)

The market is an abstraction, a mobilized concept with a set of functions. In a contemporary turn of phrase, one of those functions is speaking “truth to power.” What power? The power of politics. What truth? This is a trickier question, but the heart of the idea of the truth of the market is that it exposes human beings “as they really are,” without all of the accretions of social norms, mores, customs and so on. This idea became prominent in the late eighteenth century. The market has truth, speaks truth, because it allegedly represents human nature in a more accurate way than politics does: politics is dangerous because it is a mobilized expression of vanity or self-love, whereas economics serves as a helpful check on the cruel excesses of power because it is an expression of nothing more than self-interest. 

Sirico and other libertarians are right when they emphasize that this is a moral choice. Note however that the truth procedure tied-up with this choice – with a market that “speaks truth to power,” the power of the state – is also a choice about human nature. The market speaks truth precisely because it is supposed to represent human beings as they really are. As I see it, one problem here – and a question that libertarian Catholics have to answer – concerns the contrast between this modern construction of human nature and a much older understanding. Genesis 1:26 of course tells us that human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God. I like this concept, and thinkers from Augustine forward have struggled mightily with it; are we now to understand that self-interest reflects the divine image? Are we to believe that buying and selling, saving, and work are the trinity within us? Is that the libertarian contribution?

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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Robert Geroux: Fortunately for you, Pope Francis criticizes unfettered capitalism in his new Apostolic Exhortation "Evalgelii Gaudium" (the Joy of the Gospel) in the paragraphs numbered 52-75.

Could you perhaps cull out certain points he makes about unfettered capitalism and use them to frame your own observations about them -- but with an eye to prompting us to react to your observations and/or his?

Of course this is just a suggestion for your consideration.

"Are we to believe that buying and selling, saving, and work are the trinity within us?"  Nope.

"Is that the libertarian contribution?"  One of several of their attempts at useful contributions.  The "objectivity" of Ayn Rand's "philosophy" demands each individual be the source, the only source, of his/her well being.  Kinda' runs counter to that "togetherness" suggestion in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost thing.

From paragraph 53: "Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest...."  

Don't believe the word "everything" need be in the statement but the rest is a more than fair statement of the philosophy of life of those rightly identified as the 1%.  There is no defense of any philosphy of life approaching that statement to be found in Christianity.  None.  The challenge lies as much as anywhere is a distortion of language, an inescapable, vital compoment of marketing , e.g., the words "free" and "market".   Precede the word "market" with the word "free" and, by golly, we have a phrase one must defend with religious fervor in spite of the fact it's mere existence much less it's nature is a matter of significant debate.

Who is the fittest, the Father, the Son or the Holy Ghost?  If we consider the three as a corporation can we can believe they are an individual and avoid the first question?  Capitalism as a religious model leads to such silly questions.



What is the difference between "self-love" (wicked) and "self-interest" (good) as they see it?

I'm not a libertarian, but regarding the "truth" of human nature: I'd think a Christian anthropology would hold in tension all of these aspects which Christians would accept as factual:

  • Humans were made in the image and likeness of God
  • Humans have fallen from their initial exalted state - we've marred the original image
  • Through the saving grace of Christ, we are redeemed from our fallen state
  • We are free to accept or reject this proffered gift of salvation

Speaking as someone who goes into the marketplace every day, my view is that all of these anthropological dimensions make themselves manifest in both market behavior and political behavior.  My view is that this complex reality of human nature is prior to both economics and politics, and humans bring the realities, tensions and conflicts inherent in human nature into both the marketplace and the political arena.  

It's an idea I find strange: that the market is a source of truth.  I suppose that the market-clearing price of a gallon of milk can be said to be the "true price", but it's not really a truth of any moral significance, and it's a pretty ephemeral truth.  If I am a purveyor of dairy products, I can engage in behavior that is virtuous (selling only fresh products; not price-gouging people in need of milk for daily sustenance) or reprehensible (cheating my customers; exploiting my workers).  If I am like most people, I might do a bit of both in the same workday.  All of this is market behavior.  What "truth" is being told by it?

And of course, the marketplace can seem hostile and cold, particularly toward those in need.  The dearth of affordable housing, mental health care, living-wage job openings - all of these illustrate that whatever "truth" the marketplace speaks does not always coincide with the Kingdom of Heaven.


When the problem to hand is the optimizing one’s preferences under conditions of limited resources – for cheese or a house or a sporting or musical event – market exchanges are a useful tool.   Libertarians and their allies argue that free markets are the most efficient possible solution to such problems.   Their “proof” of this is not mathematical (except for the simplest possible sets of conditions that must conform with axioms relating supply and demand), but many people in our society find it compelling and ascribe to it greater power across human experience than it seems possible to support.

But preferences are not to be mistaken for values, at least by those who hold any place for transcendence.  Much of the “argument” is exactly a matter of what counts as a “value” versus what is “merely” a preference.  And most of the argument derives structurally from the near-universal belief in the West that mathematics and the hard physical sciences define the tools of Truth.

On the matter of the laws of supply and deman and survival of the fittest, one can usefully turn to Wendell Barry:

“Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”

Mark L.

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