Priest’s new book makes moral case for free-market economy
Formerly a left-wing activist who moved in the same circles as Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, Father Robert Sirico shifted rightward on economic policy decades ago after debating a friend who believed in free markets.
“Throughout my life, even when I have been terribly mistaken in my ideas, I have always been open-minded and honest in looking at opposing viewpoints,” Sirico said, recalling his ideological transformation.
“So when I met a friend of a friend who had completely different ideas about how the economy functions and how society flourishes under the rule of law and economic liberty, I engaged him in the debate. He gave me a ton of books to read, which I did, and over a six-month period of time I came to the conclusion that he had the better argument.”
“It was awkward initially, because most all my friends were on the left,” he continued. “But as you see some 35-40 years later, it all worked out in the end.”
Sirico, who co-founded the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in 1990, makes the moral case for the free market system in his new book, “Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.”
“The system of profit and loss in a free economy can orient our behavioral compass toward activities that serve others, make good use of resources, and prepare us for the future,” Sirico explained. (RELATED: AEI president urges conservatives to make moral case for free enterprise)
“It doesn’t stop people from serving evil desires or eradicate original sin, but without the price signals in a free economy, our economic activities would be without order.”
Asked whether he thinks President Obama or presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney is closer to his economic worldview, Sirico said the president “believes that a major expression of a nation’s moral and communal obligation is to be administered through governmental and political institutions.”
“Governor Romney appears to go out of his way to look for society to express itself in non-political ways,” he added. “I am not a member of either political party.”
The Daily Caller’s full interview with Sirico is below.
Why did you write the book?
I wrote “Defending the Free Market” because it is something that I have been doing, in fact, for many years. In the process of this I have seen several dangerous tendencies that result from either expecting too little of the free economy or expecting too much of it. It is difficult to find a moral case presently that identifies these mistakes and offers a coherent alternative.
When people think that there is no moral tutoring that goes on in a free economy or that profit is itself an indication of immorality, it is difficult to build a society that can confidently prosper and produce a superfluous amount of goods to supply human needs and the legitimate desire of one generation to leave the next better off that they were.
On the other hand, some people seem to have the idea that when confronting the horror of human desperation that one still encounters in the developing world, the only thing they think is required to enable people to live better is to remove controls and regulations and insure they have access to goods, services and jobs, as though culture and moral formation were not both an essential element and prerequisite for prosperity.
I wanted to bring both the practical and the moral into conversation and show how building not only a free society but a virtuous one is essential. We must have the piety of a moral vision and the practical technique of the business leader to build the kind of society worth of human beings.
The press for your book says you used to run in the same activist circles as Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. How is it that you shifted to free-market defender while they are still caught up with the left?
Throughout my life, even when I have been terribly mistaken in my ideas, I have always been open-minded and honest in looking at opposing viewpoints. I guess that is the debater in me. So when I met a friend of a friend who had completely different ideas about how the economy functions and how society flourishes under the rule of law and economic liberty, I engaged him in the debate.
He gave me a ton of books to read, which I did, and over a six-month period of time I came to the conclusion that he had the better argument. It was awkward initially, because most all my friends were on the left. But as you see some 35-40 years later, it all worked out in the end.
What is the moral case for capitalism?
The moral case for a free economy (I prefer this phrase over the word “capitalism” which is far too narrow and has Marxist roots) is to be found in human nature: the very reality that all people related to the natural world of scarce resources by the use of their minds to create things that were not in existence prior to human creativity. Men and women require freedom to express this productive creativity.
The sixteenth-century priest St. Francis de Sales, when called upon to give pastoral advice to Christians involved in trades and occupations, gave a different answer from what some might expect from a saint: “Have greater care than worldly men do to make your property profitable and fruitful . . . our possessions are not our own. God has given them to us to cultivate and he wants us to make them fruitful and profitable . . . therefore let us exercise this gracious care of preserving and even of increasing our temporal goods whenever just occasions present themselves.”
The system of profit and loss in a free economy can orient our behavioral compass toward activities that serve others, make good use of resources, and prepare us for the future. It doesn’t stop people from serving evil desires or eradicate original sin, but without the price signals in a free economy, our economic activities would be without order.
One of your chapters is called “Want to Help the Poor? Start a Business.” Sounds like you’re not a big fan of traditional charity? What do you think of people tithing to churches?
I’m actually a big fan of traditional charity; I just do not believe it is the normative way people rise out of poverty. In fact, another one of the chapters is titled, “Why Smart Charity Works — And Welfare Doesn’t.” I think charity is a crucial part of any morally based economic system, and would take on a much larger role if the government did not suck all the air out of the room. My understanding of charity is grounded in the idea of human dignity on the part of both giver and recipient, something that is neglected in the federal welfare process. Traditional charities, specifically religious ones, acknowledge the value of the human person and better enable benefactors to create a life that reflects an innate sense of dignity.
As for giving to the Church, I believe generosity to be an important virtue because it is a biblical one. I see creation as the all-encompassing gift of a benevolent Creator to his creation. Humans receive all of earth’s joys — nature, family, their imago Dei — from God. Offering something back seems only natural.
What do you think of President Obama? Do you think he values the free market like you? Do you think Mitt Romney does?
I am going to leave it to others to make political applications from the principles outlined in my book. I think it is clear, however, the president believes that a major expression of a nation’s moral and communal obligation is to be administered through governmental and political institutions. Governor Romney appears to go out of his way to look for society to express itself in non-political ways. I am not a member of either political party.
Why do you oppose universal health care?
I am in favor of universal health care in the same way that I favor “universal shoes” – I just fear that the political process is least capable of achieving either. It is not a good state of affairs when medical providers come to see the government or the insurance companies, rather than the patient, as their primary client. A socialized health care system also undermines technological innovation, just as a government takeover of any realm of the economy suffocates innovation — by severing the free relationship among buyers and sellers, crushing incentives for excellence, and bogging down potential innovators and providers in a thicket of regulation.
Why is equality overrated?
A moment’s reflection reveals that total equality, which is, sameness, is impossible and undesirable to achieve. Whenever it is sought after, the result is oppressive. Instead of a culture of wealth-taking, in which the government gives and takes as it sees fit, we need a culture of wealth-making, where the entrepreneurial spirit is rewarded and socially-minded business can thrive and prosper.
What three books most influenced your worldview?
Other than the Bible: “Treatise on Law” by St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Fatal Conceit” by Fredrick von Hayek and “Richard III” by William Shakespeare.
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