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?

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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