When conservatives blame markets for illnesses generic to all modern economies, they misdiagnose the cause and therefore prescribe faulty remedies.
What Does Jerusalem Have to Do with Glasgow?
Christian reasoning about politics and economics is complicated. On the one hand, while the restoration of fallen humanity’s relationship with God is of first-order importance, this restoration also has implications for relationships between humans. These implications extend beyond narrow individual piety to include matters of politics, economics, and society. The trick for Christians is to navigate between the Scylla of ignoring the ways the faith might complicate our ideas of political economy and the Charybdis of using Scriptures to justify our already-held policy positions rather than allowing them to form our beliefs. The latest addition to the Cambridge Studies in Law and Christianity is Daniel A. Crane’s and Samuel Gregg’s edited volume, Christianity and Market Regulation: An Introduction, a welcome addition to serious Christian thinking on these matters.
With fourteen authors drawing on sources that include the Scriptures, Catholic social thought, economic theory, and legal and church history, the ten chapters and the introduction discuss three broad topics: the morality of markets and entrepreneurship, the morality and economics of selected regulatory interventions, and ways that regulatory interventions can run afoul of Christian aspirations.
Roughly a third of the chapters seek primarily to assuage the discomfort many Christians and Christian leaders have with the morality of the market, entrepreneurship and economic competition, and profit. These chapters form an essential baseline not only regarding the morality of engaging in market activity (and limits to that morality) but also regarding economic efficiency, and the contribution of markets to the common good.
The arguments here draw broadly on the Bible’s teaching that humans were created in the image of God—the imago dei. They trace implications of that image for human dignity, and the necessity of freedom—including economic freedom—to sustain that dignity. At the same time, all the authors concede at one level or another that naked market outcomes may at times fail to provide the basic conditions necessary to sustain human dignity. Certain types of government regulation or intervention may be needed at these times. These authors emphasize that the conditions under which regulatory intervention may be justified, and when that intervention may cause more harm than good, admit a wide latitude of Christian policy judgments.
The second third of the chapters examines specific questions of regulatory policy in a small, eclectic set of policy domains: Antitrust (and competition more generally), financial regulation (with a focus on the implications of the principle of subsidiarity for regulation in this area), the influence of Christianity on American bankruptcy law, and the centuries-long discussion of prices, just prices, and price controls in Christian theology.
The remaining set of chapters cover Christian principles aimed at the government regulator. They explore, for example, how rent-seeking (or “Crony capitalism”) is not simply a matter of regulatory inefficiency, but that it violates Christian morality by abusing government power to enrich Peter at Paul’s expense for no proper public purpose. Several authors also discuss how economists and Christian theologians differently approach issues related to economic behavior. The former emphasizing material concerns, the latter including a broader set of social and relational concerns without neglecting material concerns. After all, that “man does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8.3) does not mean that man does not live by bread at all.
Each chapter engages a distinctive set of questions and answers for the Christian to engage and argue. If there is a weakness to the volume, it is that the volume is too slender given the scope of the topic. While leaving the reader wanting more is praise, nonetheless there were critical topics necessarily omitted in such a short book. It would have been useful if the volume—or a follow up—not only discussed a greater number of specific policy domains, but also if its more theoretical discussions of a broad Christian framework addressed Christian political economy and Christian orientations toward regulatory interventions more comprehensively.
For example, there is repeated reference in different chapters to the fundamental position of human freedom in the political economy of Catholic social thought and the Bible. And justifiably so. Yet there are additional fundamental concepts as well that merit focus and discussion along with freedom. There are, for example, spiritual and material conditions necessary to sustain basic human dignity. Or there is the importance of the concept of the universal destination of goods (UDG) for Christian political economy. This expresses the implications of the fundamental gift of creation to humanity (Genesis 1.26-30, 2.15-16), as well as implications of God’s providential superintendence of all that is produced by human hands (1 Chronicles 29.12,14, 16, Deuteronomy 8.17-18, Psalm 24.1, etc).
While the “universal destination of goods” sounds vaguely socialistic, it’s not. Private property and markets are natural and acceptable means of allocating goods among humans. But the universal destination of goods creates a sort of reservation clause in all property: The UDG implies that all people have a claim on both the produce of the earth and of the surplus of human labor and production when necessary for self-preservation. This works as a limit on private property rights and free markets. Because property rights and markets exist to allocate goods and services among all of humanity, they go contrary to their purpose when they deprive any person of necessary sustenance. (John Locke, for example, discusses a similar limitation to property rights in Section 42 of his First Treatise of Government.)
Several of the authors certainly allude to this concept. Yet it is significant enough, and is so critically correlative with the principle of human freedom that it merits further and detailed discussion, along with human liberty, in any introduction to Christian thinking on political economy.
So, too, the inclusion of a broader set of specific policy areas would have been useful. This is not to criticize the specific policy areas discussed in the book. Indeed, just the opposite. But the policy domains discussed in the volume are too few and too idiosyncratic.
For example, the contributors could have addressed regulations for public health and safety—food, drugs, consumer goods, housing, working conditions, professional licensing, public ways, etc.— which are all traditional areas of regulation and cover vast regulatory domains. Ignored, too, in the volume is the discussion of the regulation of public morality—some of which clearly intersects with markets (e.g., the provision of illegal drugs, prostitution, abortion, etc.).
There are also policy areas in which policy intuitions formed by serious Christian thinking could contribute in unique ways to regulatory policy-making in these areas. For instance, the possibility that many professional licensing requirements are little more than legislatively constructed barriers to vocational entry is a notion embraced on both sides of the political divide. Yet the focus is mainly economic. The Christian understanding of “vocation” and its significance for human meaning and dignity would be an example of a unique dimension that Christian social thought would bring to the policy discussion.
There are also regulations in numerous Biblical texts that would be worth discussing more broadly for comparative purposes if not for Biblical understanding itself. The question of the continuing normative significance of the Law of the Covenant in Exodus 21-23, or many of the sundry regulations in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, would seem to be centrally pertinent in any introduction to the question of Christianity and market regulation.
For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (used by Presbyterian churches) distinguishes between moral, judicial, and ceremonial laws in the Old Testament. It teaches that moral laws—general moral principles such as “do not steal” “do not commit adultery,” “do not covet”—continue today while the ceremonial laws are (generally) fulfilled in Christ. Yet regarding the judicial or civil laws the Confession more ambivalently affirms that to Old Testament Israel, “as a body politic, [God] gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
Indeed, a handful of the authors in this volume discuss aspects of these laws, engaging their “general equity” (or reasonability) in fascinating detail. More of this would have been useful in an introductory volume: understanding the import of these laws—these teachings—in their ancient context and then drawing on them analogically to probe, test, and refine our own modern sensibilities (as in Deuteronomy 4.5).
A couple of additional discussions could have been usefully included as well. Given the visibility of Christian scholars among postliberals (there are too many to name—John Milbank, Oliver O’Donovan, and Patrick Deneen—are several who come immediately to mind), and the nod in the book by several authors that Christianity’s aspirations don’t directly map onto economic efficiency, a broader consideration of the relationship between social life and market economics would have been pertinent to a very visible discussion currently taking place on the religious and secular right.
For example, in resurrecting and updating a version of Karl Polanyi’s argument in The Great Transformation, postliberal conservatives assert that imperatives created by globalized price competition ride roughshod over important aspects of human solidarity. Expressed in economic language, postliberals argue that the impact of economic dislocation on the interplay between identity and vocation might be a type of negative social external cost that needs to be taken into consideration along with more-purely economic externalities and material benefits.
Even more critically, there is the question of a tension between the ontology of the market and the ontology of the Church. The essays in this volume largely endorse a form of individualism, whether methodological individualism or aggregative individualism (in that they treat human collectivities, and ideas such as the “common good,” as identical with the aggregate interests of the individuals in the group).
To be sure, after a 20th century in which notions of human social organisms did so much damage via communism and fascism it is understandable that we be shy of talk about the reality of human organic unities. And yet there is no getting around the fact of the Christian church’s fundamental identity as the corporate body of Christ. The Apostle Paul’s lengthy discussions of the reality of the organic life of the Body (Rom 12.5-6, 1 Con 12.4-26, Eph 2.21-22)—and the Bible’s reference to the Church as a “polis” (Mt 5.14, Heb 12.22)—can’t help but suggest the similar definitional point as the polis as body in Aristotle’s politics: “The polis is also prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually, since the whole is necessarily prior to the part.” In the Church, Christians are “members of one another” (Romans 12.5, Ephesians 4.24).
The implications go both ways. The “communion of the saints” seems to have clear economic content according to Jesus (Mark 10.30). But the question is also whether the interpenetration of the market and market rationality runs so deeply in the lives of modern Christians that it stunts the very ability of Christians to conceive of the Church as the true Body of Christ, and so enervates Christian engagement with and as the Church.
These are not so much criticisms of the current volume as an encouragement for Christians to continue the discussion started in the book. This volume is a serious and suggestive introduction to the consideration of Christianity, markets, and regulation.