June 4th, 2010
01:42 AM ET
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.
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