“Let us Christianize the free economy!” This call is often heralded by traditional Conservatives as well as Liberation Theology advocates. The assumption is that for an economy to work we need to be intentional in our pursuits and “bring Christ to the marketplace.”  However, a truly free, pluralistic, and efficient society prevents the exercise from being fruitful. Command and traditional societies try to suffuse a body politic with certain values at the expense of freedom but the exercise is often futile.

I agree with Michael Novak when he states that “A democratic capitalist society is, in principle, uncommitted to any one vision of a social order.”  A traditional society that attempts to fill the canopy with the God of the Christians may, if truly consistent with authentic Christian principles, offer allegiance to freedom but the most consistent system of thought is one where no specific system is imposed and the heart of the nation respects pluralism. The canopy remains intentionally empty.

Liberation theologians speak often of Gospel values and utopian conceptions of the political system attempting to bring heaven on earth.  Likewise, traditional societies offered a unitary vision where detraction from certain values was offensive, even treasonous. A free society rejects both conceptions because it is realist, treats human persons as they really are, and pluralistic. An economic system does not work because the butcher is a good Christian as the system depends not on his compassion or altruism. It is not Christian brotherhood what makes the system work but pragmatism. It works because it understands what really works.

Moreover, a system based on humans as they are not, always altruistic, compassionate, generous, ends up in disaster.  Command and traditional societies, after deseeding the oft repeated romantic stories, self-destruct as the goals are never attained and the unitary vision was kept  together through power and indoctrination. Curiously, they end up with hoarding individualism, as persons realize that the vision was fake and they better grab what they can. Sadness and hopelessness is at the end of that road.

What a truly free society needs is a series of institutional arrangements that minimize the rule by men, even those with high values. Public institutions embody a respect for persons and the reality of processes necessary for a functioning market. Alongside such public institutions, we need a cultural system where basic institutions such as churches, universities, civic groups, and charitable organizations thrive. These private institutions are necessary for the free system but they function “as yeast in dough.” They refuse to lead while providing powerful influence. Quoting Novak again, “The important distinction is this: Christianity has helped to shape the ethos of democratic capitalism, but this ethos forbids Christians (or any others) from attempting to command the system.”

The temptation for comprehensive systems of thought (as Socialism and Christianity are)is to command, as they offer a response for every aspect of life and see their responses as “the truth.” It seems forced for them to recede and recognize that space where they are not leading, that secular space. But that is exactly what they must do and they did in America.

There is no unitary vision in America apart from freedom but that does not mean there are not powerful influences. Christianity was that most powerful influence and the Founders were wise enough to create a system that successfully merged principles of justice as Christianity sees them with a respect for pluralism and freedom.  There is a consistency between the principles of pluralism and freedom in American society and the tenets about the good life present in the Judeo-Christian vision. The vision is merged in a way that prevents utopian expectations of some sort of commanded beloved community. There is no final solution for the problem of alienation and sin. The system expects both and feeds on both. The system remains open to wonder and debasement, good and evil. It is real.

Our society is not traditional, where the past commanded the present and limited freedom to break with it where needed. It is not a command society either, where the utopian vision of a future that will never be offers expectations often left unfulfilled. Ours is a system of sinners, created by sinners, and offering no final resolution. Institutions tame impulses and encourage others but accept our finitude. And it works!

Instead of having a preferred vision of the human person (looking at the past with nostalgia or at the future with idealism) the system works because it fits the reality of human existence as it is. Instead of commanding by concentrating power and reason on high, it diffuses power and has confidence in the undirected, and never perfect, choice of millions of free actors. Amazingly, the results of such system achieve a moral outcome without any directed moral purpose. Tyranny is what democratic capitalism fears, as tyranny impedes systemic processes from adjusting and reacting. The other systems fear things they want to prevent by direct action: disorder and inequality. They end up heightening both.

Let us then not search for the Shangri-La or dream of a past that never will be again (and really never was). Let us delight now in the uncertainties and good results of freedom. Two cheers for Capitalism!

Advertisements