“The temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.”

─ Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Jesus of Nazareth

 

Error may not have rights but erroneous people do. The temptation to command a social system is present in Christians like me. Our adherence to a comprehensive system such as Christianity exerts powerful influence on us to fill the canopy of society with a Christian vision of social order. A temptation it is.

One of the reasons for such temptation is that Christian values and ideas are, for the most part, not only consistent but also necessary for the proper functioning of a truly free society. Although it has taken long for Christianity to learn the lesson of restraint, it continues to be the great source of important values and conception of rights nurturing free societies.

To command the system and impose a vision of the good, however, implies a unitary and traditional vision of society that does not sit well with the pluralism needed in free market economies and could become a violation of conscience.  A “Christian” society is, for the most part, a mirage in a pluralistic polity. Of course Christians have a right to present and defend their views in the marketplace; pluralism is not the same as indifferentism. Yes, we must stand against certain acts such as abortion and euthanasia precisely because these are a violation of human rights.

But the empty canopy at the heart of a free society must remain empty as, in trying to impose a vision, we will cause more harm than good; destroying freedom in the name of the good. However, a truly Christian society will allow the thriving of basic communities that manifest a commitment to values. A free society is nourishes by these values and they may systemically emerge as a free expression of who we are as a people.  These institutions are the ferment shaping the ethos of freedom and, at the same time, preventing Christianity from imposing a vision.

There is a tension here between freedom and Christian conceptions of the good. One of the reasons is that, as Christianity is comprehensive, it may lure some of its adherents to try and control. It is difficult to rescind from that inclination before the demands of merely particular systems. But that is exactly what is expected of us. This humility in rescinding protagonism from the center is necessary to ‘frustrate the totalistic impulse.’[1] That there is alignment between the Christian view of values and history and the underlying philosophy of freedom does not imply a unitary vision of society.

One of the reasons why a free economy is not directly dependent on a unitary vision of values is that it is a good of order, created in a way that it works as a system. It is a system that relies less on intentions and more on specific conceptions of the good and more on the application of practical intelligence and the power of cumulative human rationality. This “natural system of liberty”, as Adam Smith called it, allowed nations to create great wealth by placing emphasis on results, not on intentions or moral purposes. When one exercise the capacity to pursue one’s rational self-interest, there is a natural inclination towards cooperation and, paradoxically, a better chance for a moral outcome.

It is very simple. A system that allows each person to pursue what they choose to pursue and work hard towards achieving goals dear to one’s heart, on the whole, is a system that works much better than a system that imposes a unitary vision of the good.  In allowing liberty to flourish this system well understands that evil will lurk around. That is why a sound economic system benefits from a cultural and institutional structure that nurtures certain values without imposing them. Churches and places of worship are essential to freedom not because they have the answer to all social situations but because they provide the ethical flavor benefitting free men.  It is not that those advocating a free economy do not care about values but that they understand the reality of unintended consequences. The actions of virtuous people may produce negative consequences if the economic systems they support are not the best. It is better to create a system that better unleash human creativity than to create one based on piety but weak on intelligence.

In the productive process the number of actors involved prevents any rational discernment of intentions. As every step in the productive process is important, and no human mind is capable to weigh intentions at every step, a system based on intentions suffers from the problem of commensurability.  A better system focuses on the makings of processes based on looking at the consequences of human action.

Adam Smith looked at what systems created better results for the greater number of people and found that a system that allows pluralism to flourish and men to pursue their interest as they see fit is better at economic production. It is that simple…


[1] Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1982) p. 69.

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