Rev. Robert Sirico's Moral Case for a Free Economy

A word of advice about Rev. Robert Sirico’s just released Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy: Do not tell yourself that you will “just read a chapter” in your office before settling down to do the work that you absolutely must do before your week begins. I made that mistake, and read about two-thirds of the book in one go. I only stopped reading because there was nothing left to read; I finished the book.

Sirico at one point says that a favorite compliment is “being told that I have put into words what someone has thought for a long time but never been able to articulate” (106). I can’t pay him that compliment; I can say something stronger: Sirico puts into words things I’d never thought of, but wish I had. I found myself, while reading the book, trying to take a mental note of some of his very best one liners, turns of phrase, and examples, in an effort to store them for future use.

Sirico shows repeatedly, and even doggedly, that the enemies of free markets have it exactly wrong. One doesn’t have to choose between helping the poor and markets; between health care and markets, or between protecting the environment and markets. On the contrary, as he puts it, if you want to help the poor, start a business; if you want people to receive health care, then don’t let a state-funded bureaucracy suck the compassion out of medicine, and, if you want to save tigers and elephants, then give people property rights in them, etc.

But Sirico is actually at his best when he is telling stories: Mrs. Schneider baking cookies on the day he learned, as a boy, that “refugee” wasn’t a word for another nationality, like the word “German”; Mrs. Rabinowitz’s siren call keeping the neighborhood kids in line, and the scene of the seventy-seven year old François Michelin picking up our author, a Roman Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute, in a test car with experimental tires on it. “You mean you are not yet sure these tires are secure?” Sirico asks. “I hope you will not worry,” comes the reply. “Our scientists have worked hard on these tires. But you would not expect me to offer tires for sale to my customers to drive their families on, if I were not willing to ride on them first.”

“I laughed, I cried” is such a cliché that it is never given in praise nowadays; it’s always a facetious aside. Even still, though I didn’t cry, I did get teary eyed in Sirico’s moving discussion of a little girl’s death, and I certainly laughed out loud at the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 1939 prediction that American oil supplies would run out in 13 years. These stories and zany facts are essential to the work. Enemies of the market all too often captivate us with pictures of the downtrodden and stories of the courageous. Sirico does us and the market a favor when he reminds us, in arguments and facts, but also in soaring narratives and comic anecdotes, that the market is not devoid of humanity but full of life—human life.

I did wonder at times about the audience of the book: For whom was Defending the Free Market written? Occasionally, the tone would shift, and Sirico would surprise me. From a forthright philosophical defense of the market he would turn to, e.g., “a theology of enterprise.” I think that’s because Sirico needs to wage rhetorical warfare on more than one front. He faces not just religiously motivated progressives, those who disparage the free market as an oppressor of the poor. He also faces libertarians dismissive of religion, those who are concerned about utility but unconcerned, or even suspicious of, the language of virtue.

I am pleased that I owe yet another debt of gratitude to Rev. Robert Sirico and the Acton Institute. Indeed, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy reads at times like a distillation of the very best work that Acton has done over the last two decades. So, if you believe in God but are suspicious of markets, you should read this book. If you believe in free markets, but are nervous about the role of religion in politics, then you should read it, too.

Finally, if you are an advisor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, then you should have cases of the book airdropped into swing states and parachuted behind enemy lines. Though he does not mention Governor Romney explicitly, Rev. Robert Sirico reminds us of the thrift and industry, of the creativity and determination, evidenced by the best of the world’s entrepreneurs. They make money for themselves and for others, and they have fun along the way.