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June 4th, 2010
01:42 AM ET

My Take: The market's not God, but it is virtuous

Editor's Note: Austin Hill is a radio host and coauthor of "The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case For Free Markets."

By Austin Hill, Special to CNN

The market is not God, nor should it be regarded as such. I’m not aware of anybody who advocates that it should be regarded as God.

Some people like to simply claim the market has become God, then spend lots of time and energy lamenting how this is a grave immorality. It’s very provocative.

But if we are seriously seeking to be, as the Rev. Jim Wallis states, “smarter and more prudent about our economic lives,” then we’d all do well to ask whether assertions that are provocative are actually substantial.

Wallis writes that “Over the past 30 years or so, the market has become like an invasive species, devouring everything in its path.” What exactly does this mean, and where is the evidence?

Here’s a small bit of what we do know: market economies around the world have lifted unprecedented numbers of people out of poverty. Interestingly, poverty today is most prevalent in nations where market economies do not exist, and among nations that do not participate in the global economy.

There is no doubt that the results of global capitalism are at times negative. Yet it is also the case that free market economics and global capitalism have positively transformed nations - and entire regions of the world. In my lifetime, the market has enabled Japan to rise from the ashes of World War II to become a global economic power.

And today, what has happened in Japan is happening all over again in India.

Wallis raises legitimate concerns about greed and, by implication, materialism - the tendency to be preoccupied with the accumulation of wealth and material possessions. Both of these problems are at times present in our economic activity.

Yet both of these problems have to do with the imperfect nature of human character. People are at times greedy and materialistic, yes, but it makes no sense to claim that “the system” is itself greedy or materialistic.

What, exactly, is the system, apart from human participation within it? The existence of human imperfection does not constitute a criticism of the free market economy, nor does flawed human character exist exclusively within market-based economies.

In fact, the absence of market competition in an economy can lead to far worse problems with greed and materialism.

Consider the tragic example of North Korea. Here is a nation whose dictator, Kim Jong Il, controls essentially all the nation’s economic resources, and so-called greedy capitalists aren’t permitted to operate as that invasive species to which Wallis refers.

Yet while the dictator lives in what is believed to be a palace and enjoys all the riches and material comforts that he desires, the North Korean citizenry struggles with inadequate food, water and electricity. The market is prohibited from, as Wallis says, devouring “everything in its path,” yet the dictatorship is a case study in the tragedy of rampant greed and materialism.

This leads to another important question: if the market is immoral and unjust, then what will make conditions better? Wallis is well-known for his stance on greater governmental regulation and more governmental redistribution of people’s resources.

But to achieve the kind of moral, virtuous society Wallis envisions, it’s not enough to simply re-distribute wealth. Rather, we need to begin with a theologically informed view of the human person. Every individual is endowed by their creator with unique talents and attributes, and has a natural desire to engage those talents, and to better themselves.

This is what we call self-interest. A society does a grave disservice to human beings when it punishes human achievement with ever-increasing rates of material confiscation and the squelching of human freedom.

Similarly, every individual - even elected politicians and government bureaucrats - is capable of greed and other undesirable traits. Society does another grave disservice by concentrating economic resources in the hands of the political class, and by perpetually rescuing people (and entire companies) from their own undesirable behavior.

Wallis and I share a common faith and we desire many of the same economic ends. But I could not disagree more with many of his proposed means of achieving those ends.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Austin Hill.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Money & Faith • Politics

soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. Rick McDaniel

    Only when you compare the corruption and power mongering between the market and reliigon.

    June 7, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  2. Bill Moore

    First, yes...the market has lifted societies out of poverty. That is certainly a point in its favor. Do we dare ask what these societies may lose (if anything) from the market? There may be some evidence that they gain some other kinds of freedom in addition to financial. And then there is the ability (not always exercised, but often it is) for the wealthier to exert undue influence via lobbyists and other means that the majority cannot compete with. This seems contrary to free and democratic principles.

    Yes, N. Korea is a horrid place. Most of the truly communist nations are or were. I am not sure the same could be said of the so called "democratic socialist" countries of Europe. People often like to say "If you like the European system so much, why don't you go there?" Well, first because I have as much right to use proper and legal methods to see that this society is as I and others like me feel it should be. If we are a minority in the electorate, then we lose. I don't think that people who think that taxes are too high would like to be told "love it or leave it" either.

    And while the market is great at creating wealth people on both sides often miss a critical point on where the wealth goes. The productivity of American workers has been rising gradually for decades, even the productivity of the lower level workers. The problem is that after allowing for inflation, buying power has gone down for lower level workers and risen greatly for higher level workers. This is the definition of a negative merit raise. Do not misunderstand me. I am NOT saying that it is wrong for the higher income people to make more or for their pay to increase more or to increase more rapidly than the pay or lower paid workers. I am saying that if some people consistently increase their productivity and consistently make less and less (again, allowing for inflation) that this is a moral dilemma for the market system and very possibly a justification for SOME degree of income redistribution by the government.

    Yes, the market is a wonderful machine. But it needs regulating. An engine alone does not make a vehicle. A transmission, steering etc. are also needed.

    June 7, 2010 at 2:34 am |
  3. Robert

    This is a good counter argument however I still feel that the benefits of capitalism are all too transient. We need a rethink as it seems our way of life is not sustainable in the longer term and is impacting negatively on the mental and physical health of the very people who engage in it.

    Whilst I cannot dispute the fact that free market economies do lift people out of poverty, at least in some instances, it also generates a whole host of problems – the inbalance between various countries and their local economies, scales of trade, ability to compete, are all ignored. The human impact of mass unemployment, mass urbanisation (in developing societies), the degradation of food security (in developed societies) and the simple fact that mental health issues and suicides are increasing in developed societies all point to the fact that there is something wrong with our market/societal model.

    II am not saying scrap capitalism and the free market, but it is time to take an honest look at it and adjust things so that the 'fit' is better and healthier for all of us.

    June 7, 2010 at 1:55 am |
  4. Kieran

    The market cannot be virtuous because making money is not a moral end. Capitalism can be used to achieve moral ends such as widespread prosperity, but only if it is regulated by the government (or charity achieves the same effect, which is never going to happen) and only until it eventually outstrips the world's resources and destroys itself.

    June 5, 2010 at 1:59 am |
  5. Bill Gilman

    Austin you are wrong about one key theological point - humans are NOT created to better themselves and achieve their full potential. Humans are created to serve God. Period. How? By loving each other and being God's hands and feet on the earth, serving each other. Jesus said that we should serve each other because He set the example as a suffering servant. So this whole thing about bettering onesself is totally non-Christian and , I would say, anti-Christian in nature.

    June 4, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
    • Kieran

      But the realization of our "full potential" on earth is to serve God in others. By doing so, we better ourselves. Of course we were created to better ourselves. You said something similar to "A farmer's job isn't to grow food; it's to feed us." One is the end and one is the means, but they are both correct and if you have one you can easily figure out what the other one is.

      June 5, 2010 at 12:58 am |
    • Seraphim0

      So, by that logic.. being an individual and bettering yourself or situation is anti-christian? Anyone who tries to better themselves is not a christian. Hrm.

      Time for you to take your kids out of school, move out of your house, wear nothing but leaves, and live in the forest.

      June 10, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
  6. Jim Bob

    Mammon, not money, is the root of all evil.

    June 4, 2010 at 9:54 pm |
  7. jopus

    Reading Wallis and Hill illustrates the increasingly common American tendency to speak without listening. Each responds superficially to the other, but neither address the same question, as though a button was pushed on the pre-recorded message most closely on topic. Wallis talks about the failure of current equity markets to reflect real economic value, a problem that is turning investors away toward more sane investment strategies (perhaps a bank account is the only option). Hill thinks the issue is the morality of capital markets, a different question. That neither is capable of understanding a question well enough to be on the same topic speaks to the failure of American intellectual culture and education.

    June 4, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
    • Kieran

      I would assume you are not American because you are engaging in such useless stereotyping.

      June 4, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
  8. Kieran

    Actually, GROWTH is the god, and CONSUMERISM is the religion. The first commandment of capitalism is "Grow or die." All companies must constantly grow, including companies that use and create material objects, in order to survive. This means that eventually, the market will deplete the earth's natural resources. Capitalists call this growth good because it constantly creates more wealth, jobs, and prosperity. The only problem with this theory is that not everyone can be prosperous. In fact, if everyone on earth had the same standard of living as middle-class America, we would need a handful of extra earths just to supply the necessary resources. That also goes for everyone who thinks that any other economic system could lift us all to that level.

    Consumerism is based on a personal version of the growth rule; it is the lifestyle in which a person seeks meaning and fulfillment through buying things. They have been led to believe that having nice things is the key to being "successful," and at school they are taught how to be the best worker, entrepreneur, or consumer they can be. The idea of learning how to be a good person or how to be morally successful is not considered at all. This is what Wallis might mean by calling the market an idol.

    June 4, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
  9. God Soldier 007

    The creators are very Furious , They wont tolerate certain things that is going on , but is not necessary against the Market .

    They are the most Powerful ones - Our creators - They don't like the abuse thats being taking place for way to long .

    Not only they can Control the Market but anything else they wish or want including Mother earth .

    They Give Wisdom and they give full total support . They are very rigid , but when they see abuse towards One of them by their own choice they wont take it .

    Any who likes to be the witness of that we r no longer alone is very Welcome . One at a time and would need to be very Spiritual .

    They love all . but abuse they got sick and tire of it .

    June 4, 2010 at 8:25 pm |
  10. Jackalope

    Jackalope

    For decades I've been referring to "free market" ideology as "free market theology". I don't think it's a coincidence that the segment of our society that identifies most closely with Christian fundamentalism is also the segment that proselytizes most vehemently for "free market ideology"

    As you might expect, as they do with their religion, they also carve out exceptions for themselves with their economic dogma when it is to their advantage. Once a hypocrite, always a hypocrite.

    June 4, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
    • Gods Warrior

      When you speak nobody cares. We need to re-examine our values and reclaim our christian nation.

      June 4, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
    • Seraphim0

      well, 'Warrior,' you cared enough to comment.

      June 10, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  11. David

    Yes Nathan, where there is "greed" and a "love for money" you'll find Idolatry; where people have made the market their god, amongst many other things. I agree with Wallis on this issue. He's obviously a true man of the one and only God, and is gently trying to help those that do not know the "Truth". I was also one of those people serving false gods, but thankfully by God's grace; He has opened up my eyes by the faith I have in His Son Jesus Christ. May the eyes that read this be opened and unblinded from such deception as this last article reads.

    June 4, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
  12. Nathan

    The market is virtuous? What a joke. The fact is, there is a widespread sickness called greed – the love of money. The "market" simply exposes this sickness – if you are anxious about the market, then money is your God.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
  13. Dean

    A statement about the market being God is not supposed to be taken literally. It is intended to question whether people assign human traits (virtue?) to an idea, a concept, a collection of actions and conclusions with no central, organized plan. The fact is, it is a very appropriate question. People have, for millenia, assigned the random acts of chance to a deity. When one asks why God would allow evil, suffering, deaths of newborns and those who are pious, the answer is always "One cannot know God's plan". Using Occam's razor, what conclusion would one come to if the question was asked "If an event appears random, is it more rational to consider it to be random or to assign it to the workings of some omnicient being whose plan we cannot possibly understand?". I go with random. So, how does this relate to the question at hand? The market is also random. Market capitalization is not based upon the actual value of goods and services of a company – but the *perceived* value... which can change from moment to moment. Most of what we consider 'wealth' is not real – stocks are representations of a piece of something that cannot be valued directly. In the end, what 'markets' have done is to convince people they have something of value, which allows them to get other people to perform services for them in order to get a part of that 'value'. If people didn't trade money or goods, but still performed the same acts they did today – the world would continue to operate *exactly* as it does. Money itself is worth *nothing* more than what people think it is worth. What the market has done is to brainwash people into thinking they need to receive something in order to provide something. Neighbors no longer help neighbors fix fences, build barns, work on vehicles. Everything is done for money. I volunteer for various organizations and it is near impossible to get people to volunteer for anything – they are to busy trying to make money, so their time is 'too valuable' to assist. This is what markets have done.

    June 4, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  14. sjenner

    Oh no. Please. Stop the logic.

    June 4, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
  15. C. R.

    One further point: You call it "self-interest" but the greed motive is what drives the market. In what way is it a disservice to people to take from those with lots and give it to those with less? I, at least, am certainly not advocating for a complete redistribution, but knocking those with billions down to millions could generate the capitol to completely revitalize the economic sectors of nations worldwide if properly applied. I do, however, agree that we shouldn't save companies who fail. Too bad, they made bad decisions. People look back to the "good old days" of Capitalism, but it's a false image. We need a change and in many ways I wish we would have allowed the banking system to implode. It would have created a vacuum in which change could occur.

    From a position of "is the market God" the answer is yes- and no. It must be remembered that it isn't real. The whole system is immaterial. Nothing makes money worth anything but our belief that it is worth something. Delusions aside, isn't faith in something intangible an aspect of Religion? I would not call it God. Deistic though? Mythic? sure. It is one of the greatest myths in the world because everybody buys into it. The reason that redistribution works is because it's literally subtracting from one column and adding to another on the same spreadsheet.

    June 4, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • Pruitt Holcombe

      I believe that's called stealing. You're advocating the theft of the money to solve the money problems of others. Why? What did any of those to whom that money would go to do to earn that money? You can't merely say that the "billionaires" got that money through dishonest means and therefor you are morally right to take it away from them. That's blanket labeling an wrong. You are also implying that it's wrong for people to make money. Why? People throw the label of greed around far too easily.

      I enjoyed the article. At least this guy seems to have a clue about what he is talking about and doesn't mask ignorance with flowery language.

      June 4, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
    • Chad

      Re-distribution is only "stealing" if the original distribution is just. In the real world, which is full of classic market failures, cronyism, nepotism, and tons of pure dumb luck, the correlation between the size of one's paycheck and what one actually delivers to society or the choices one has made is very weak. There is no reason at all to idolize the distribution that results from such a terribly flawed system.

      June 9, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
  16. Phage0070

    The market is not God. Who buys stocks they have no evidence exist, or keeps investing in a losing prospect out of "faith"?

    June 4, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  17. Anon

    Capitalism has FAILED!! Democratic Socialism is the only fair type of government. Anyone who plays the stock market is a complete moron!

    June 4, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
    • JC

      Capitalism did not fail. It is a lack of true capitalism that was the root cause of the financial mess we are in. The financing of the US housing market was the epicenter of the 2008 global financial meltdown. The US housing market is the world’s largest government manipulated market that was artificially propped up and supported to advance a socialistic political agenda of homeownership for all regardless of fiscal or personal responsibility.

      True capitalism would lack government manipulated mortgage rates. True capitalism would lack the moral hazard of bailing out companies and individuals that make poor financial decisions. True capitalism would not require a massive bloated, inefficient, corrupt government system. True capitalism would reduce systemic risk by automatically creating systemic integrity.

      The current European sovereign debt crisis is the last warning America may get before heading into the fiscal abyss. The public sector is bleeding Europe to death and America’s public sector wounds are close to the artery as well. Big government is never the answer. Europe is proof that excessive government is a failed concept.

      While Americans are facing many challenges right now, we are a country that has always been able to meet adversity with optimistic determination. The answer to our fiscal problems rests within each of us to take personal control and responsibility for our actions and lives. It is time to elect public officials whose primary mission is returning the United States to an era of personal responsibility and true capitalism based on an outstanding work ethic and solid moral compass.

      June 4, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
    • ImNoExpert

      >democratic socialism is good

      How's that working out for Greece and the EU, Anon?

      Take it to /new/

      June 8, 2010 at 9:13 am |
    • Joe

      Again, someone else gets it. Only a combination of socialism and capitalism will work.
      It's pretty much what they have in Scandinavian countries, and they're not complaining.

      June 9, 2010 at 8:50 am |
  18. John L Mendez

    What is Austin Hill babbling about? It's ironic his opinion comes w/ a professionally taken entertainment industry head shot. He doesn't get that Wall Street is incorrectly thought of as God. The solution is in James 1:21, "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you." Amen.

    June 4, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
  19. C. R.

    "But to achieve the kind of moral, virtuous society Wallis envisions, it’s not enough to simply re-distribute wealth. Rather, we need to begin with a theologically informed view of the human person. Every individual is endowed by their creator with unique talents and attributes, and has a natural desire to engage those talents, and to better themselves."

    I was at first, prepared to be kind to you and your position. I happen to agree. The market is not God because it lacks the potency of any deity. What is more disturbing is the assumptions that made in the above quoted segment. This is disturbing. To begin, you assume a creator. Why would you do this? Your audience may not believe in what you do. That's more forgivable though. Really, it is. Kind of. What is much less appealing is that you set this up as a "good theology". You seem to assume that people have innate talents, but this is pretty much a terrible position. I'm amazed you got printed. How, for instance, can you use your "innate talents" when you are born to a nation that has no stake in the global economy, not because the people in it do not work hard but because corporations do not set up there? The market sets up a system of people who are not people- they are corporations. They can come and go as they please from nations that are impoverished, but their only concern is the bottom line. What if your 'talent" is with computes and you are born into rural Africa, somewhere far from electricity much less computers? No, for your assumption to be true (and effective) it would have to also be true that people be born with skills that match their station. THIS brings us to the core of why this statement is so vile. The- I assume- unintended implication is that people are born to have whatever skills they have to best serve their life. Then we are getting into a system of highers and lowers that stratifies people by location of birth and economic grade limiting them to certain abilities. Sir! would like a clarification of your position. It must be unintended terrible theology (the assumption that people are "endowed from their creator with certain abilities). I had a long discussion of why you are right and wrong prepared, but this disgusted me so I decided to withhold it for another day.

    June 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
    • Max

      You do realize this article is in the "belief blog" section, right?...

      June 4, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
    • JJ

      Those is glass houses should not throw bricks...or don't remove the splinter from your neighbor's eye when you have a log in your own. Your logic is horrible. Your argument would say that anyone could be a Mozart or a da Vinci that they had no talent beyond what they themselves have created. Rubbish!

      June 8, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
  20. Reality

    "Austin Hill is a Talk Show Host at Boise, Idaho's 580 KIDO Radio, and a frequent guest host at Washington, DC's 630 WMAL Radio. He is the Author of "White House: Confidential – The Little Book Of Weird Presidential History," and the Co-Author of the new release "The Virtues Of Capitalism: A Moral Case For Free Markets."

    "Austin is the author of "White House: Confidential – The Little Book Of Weird Presidential History." He holds a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, and a Master's Degree in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics from Biola University, CA."

    And this background makes him an expert in economics?? Does not CNN have economists on staff who could make more-educated commentary? Are there not economics professors who would also be more suitable stock and bond market columists?

    June 4, 2010 at 11:08 am |
    • MikeP

      I'm sorry, did you just ask, more or less, for CNN to restrict their religion section's articles to those written by "educated experts"? Imagine what a ghost town this section would be if they did THAT!

      June 4, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
    • Joe

      I agree. I went to this guy's web site, looked around, and went "who is this guy, again?"
      Especially since his position is failing.

      Dear Austin Hill (whoever you are),
      Capitalism is dying.
      And there's nothing you can do about it.

      Sincerely,
      Humanity of Planet Earth

      June 4, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • Matt

      how can you say capitalism is failing when it is the only thing that has ever brought a person or country out of poverty? Give me examples of a community or nation that 'rose from the ashes' based on other economic ideologies.

      June 4, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • C. R.

      The Soviet Union. I say this because you specify "rose" not "rose and eventually fell". I could also cite China and nearly every ancient western culture where there really were no existing economic ideologies.

      June 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
    • Matt

      So you mean to say the before the USSR fell (1990) that they were a great nation. They were not a nation that starved its own people, denied them basic freedoms, and had to cage them in at their own borders so they would not leave?

      If thats a great nation, then I agree. But I would argue that no internal prosperity was ever felt. The only prosperity that USSR ever had was a on a global scale. That is, the fear and reverence of other nations. And the only way for that nation to be considered great is if we place Love of the State above Love of the Individual.

      June 4, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • fadeinlight

      Straw man. How difficult do you think it would be to find a free-market economist? You're just angry because his argument was so much better than the other guy's.

      June 4, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
    • Bill M.

      I disagree with a fair portion of Mr. Hill's article, but I disagree also with your implication that "outsiders" to a field should not comment on it.

      June 7, 2010 at 1:52 am |
    • buckeyenutlover

      repeat the truth with me: freedom isn't free and neither is the free market; freedom isn't free and neither is the free market; freedom isn't free and neither is the free market.

      June 9, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
    • BassOMatic

      I think this guy is full of it, but I disagree with your point of view that only an economist should be commenting on the subject. This is not an article about economics, it's an article about the ethics and morality surrounding economics. Hill's background in physolophy and ethics suggests that he certainly is qualified to comment on this subject on the "Belief" blog...despite what I think of his opinions.

      June 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.