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. Marc F.

    Yet while the president lives in what is believed to be a palace and enjoys all the riches and material comforts that he desires, the American citizenry struggles with inadequate food, water and electricity.

    June 11, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  2. Josh

    The myth of the free market economy perpetrated by the left is that it is a pie. If my piece is bigger, yours must be smaller. It is this incorrect understanding of economics that drives their belief that in the free market, if I win, someone else must lose. To those of us paying attention, that's not the case. Wealth can be created. The economy is dynamic and achieves real growth over time.

    Why are you so concerned about the so called "rich" anyway? When was the last time Warren Buffett commanded any sort of control over your life, restricted you from doing something, or confiscated your money through taxes? Big government is the problem, not the solution. Capitalism has not failed. There is a long history of bubbles. Two of them have happened in this country recently. The real estate bubble was driven by amoral central planning by people who believe it is your right to own a house you can't really afford. The crash is just as much the fault of the government as it is the fault of some big banks.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
    • Seraphim0

      wait... by the 'left?' Look the other direction, pal.

      June 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
    • Fizdad

      On the local scale, the economy often IS a pie. If Walmart move next to a small town, the Main Street Woolworth's goes poof. On a global scale it's the USA using (per capita) a disproportionate amount of the world's resources for our 'growth' which seems to be focused on little expensive electronic gadgets and consuming as much of the world's oil as we can, leaving less for those folks in Africa and Asia.

      Why be concerned about the rich? Maybe because they end up controlling multi-national companies that set up financial patterns that seem to always benefit themselves. Maybe because our political system has now tilted towards the rich buying political power with their money (e.g. California this past week; striking down of Arizona's campaign finance laws). That political power certainly does and will affect all the rest of us.

      Lastly, Josh, the real estate bubble also was dramatically compounded by the derivatives market which was a product only of Big Business and not overseen by Big Government. Even Greenspan, the former Controller of Capitalism and Free Markets admitted his mistake of assuming that big business capitalists would watch out for the common good and their own company's good while they looked after their own wallets. So we would agree with the conclusion that the crash was the fault of both big government and big business! Do we agree then that if one goal is to make government smaller that we must also make business smaller, most especially those that are 'too big to fail'?

      Maybe it's time to try Distributionalism...

      June 11, 2010 at 10:58 am |
    • Kieran

      It is a pie. You're speaking as though global wealth is an infinite value that must simply be unlocked at constant increments until the entire world is prosperous. As I said above, this is false. If everyone on earth had the same level of prosperity as middle-class America, we would need a handful of extra earths just to supply the necessary material resources. Therefore, the global economy is most definitely a finite pie.

      P.S. And you can't just blame overpopulation because 1) overpopulation is caused by capitalism because labor is a commodity that the poor try to maximize by having more children and 2) overproduction is the true culprit.

      June 15, 2010 at 2:54 am |
  3. F J Gormley

    The “market” is “virtuous”? That can’t be right. How can a space defined by certain rules of exchange (whatever they may be) have “virtue”. Positive qualities – under the right rule set – yes. But virtue? I must not understand what you mean by virtue.

    Markets are useful tools. Tools can be used properly, and tools can be used improperly. Tools must be kept in good repair and subjected to appropriate maintenance at regular intervals. Not every tool is right for every job.

    A tool is not god. A tool lacks virtue. But the right tool for the right job can be useful.

    June 10, 2010 at 9:48 am |
  4. Gary

    The markets are human contrived, and so is God™

    June 9, 2010 at 11:35 pm |
  5. Ethics M.A.

    The market is neither virtuous nor malicious and to say otherwise is sheer foolishness. It is intrinsically morally neutral - like the state and religion. Like other forces directed by man, its virtue or malevolence is the product of human actions and values (or lack thereof). So, let's stop this quest for ways to absolve ourselves of human responsibility by describing things like the market, the state, or religion as something other than what they are - tools that lead to either a better or worse society depending upon how they are utilized.

    June 9, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  6. RC

    Ah, the concept of human-contrived capitalism. For someone to 'win', someone has to lose. How very civilized for the human race.

    June 9, 2010 at 9:58 am |
  7. Free What?

    It always amazes me when people talk about "free markets." It has been anything but free. The market is controlled by a handful of people who communicate with each other regularly and invest the billions of dollars entrusted to them by pension funds and other hard-working Americans and manipulate everything that happens.
    The other thing that amazes me is that people believe that money is real! There is nothing behind the monetary system now in place. We are just suckers buying into a system that is nothing but smoke and mirrors. The only advantage is that you don't have to take a bushel of tomatoes to the bar to trade for beer. Wake up and smell the coffee Little Man, 'cause sh** has hit the fan.

    June 8, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
    • Joe

      You got it, bro.

      June 9, 2010 at 8:48 am |
  8. Fizdad

    Actually, both columnists have it wrong. The Market (aka capitalism) is neither moral or immoral. It is amoral – without morals. It needs a 'higher' or common power (religion, government, or both) to provide a moral guidance upon it. Why does it need moral guidance? Because some humans – and it only takes some – have a penchant for behaviour destructive of the common good. Now is the metaphor of the Market as God useful? Certainly when it leads to us all considering statements like 'worshipping the almighty dollar' and laws passed to create the freedom to make huge amounts of money without the associated responsibility to share the wealth.

    One other point. Hill claims ..."market economies around the world have lifted unprecedented numbers of people out of poverty" and focuses on financial welfare as the end-all and be-all. However there is more to life than financial welfare. It seems like there is an inverse relationship in our world between financial welfare and spiritual welfare in terms of cultures. Perhaps the most spiritually healthy folks might be the natives in the Amazon rainforest, except that their less spiritual but financially superior brethren are destroying their way of life. Perhaps fewer 'things' but better sharing of caring, healthcare, family planning, and education might be better for us all than more material wealth...

    June 8, 2010 at 3:31 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.