A Christian Conception of Markets: Faithful People, Virtuous Markets (Part 12 of 12)

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Markets are…Markets

In his book “The End of Absence,” author Michael Harris writes, “Technology is neither good nor evil.  The most we can say about it is this: It has come.  Casting judgments on the technologies themselves is like casting judgment on a bowl of tapioca pudding.  We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies.”

Well said.

Yet when reading this, I couldn’t help but think that you could replace the word “technology” with “markets”—and maintain the accuracy, and importance, of the statement.  Markets have the capacity for help and harm.  Moreover, under market systems, some prosper while some decline.  Further, markets can facilitate virtue, but they can equally facilitate vice.  To summarize, it is less helpful to say that markets are __________ (“great”, “awful”, etc.), and more fruitful to simply suggest that markets are.

With this in mind, I humbly submit that perhaps we should focus less on markets, and more on ourselves (though this is not always the case).  We are, after all, the agents that make up the marketplace.  We are the economy 

Recapping Market Caution

In this blog series, I have attempted to highlight five areas of benefit and five areas of caution when it comes to conceptualizing markets in the faith community.

I would like to end this series by making some general comments on the five areas of caution that we, as people of faith, should be cognizant of when it comes to market activity.  To do this, it is helpful to first briefly summarize each of those areas:

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Problem—Policies that create positive long-term benefits still leave short-term problems in their wake.  Are there circumstances that merit the trade of an efficient arrangement for an equitable arrangement?

Market Externalities/Supply-Chain Ethics—In a globalized economy, our consumption patterns have an effect on others throughout the world, with the potential of creating circumstances where I might benefit at another’s expense. 

Markets Leave Their Mark—Markets have the capacity to transform the nature of the goods they facilitate; this is particularly evident when we make “higher goods” eligible for trade. 

Moral Significance of Preferences—Creating the conditions that best allow people to satisfy their preferences may produce more welfare—where welfare is measured in terms of the satisfaction of one’s current desires.  But this overlooks the fact that some preferences are “positively pernicious”; that is, there is a moral significance to the things we prefer.

Shadow Virtue—Markets may incentivize certain virtuous behaviors, but this does not necessarily make us virtuous.  Incentives may nudge us toward certain behaviors, but they do not necessarily transform us.

Some Concluding Thoughts

So, in considering these areas of caution for those within the faith community, what does a faithful response look like?  This is a large question.  However, there are a few points that I want to emphasize.

1)    First, note that these responses don’t necessarily require government intervention to fix (though in certain circumstances that may be the case). The exception may be the ‘Short-Term vs. Long-Term’ tension often evident in markets.  However, many of the other concerns listed necessitate moral intervention on behalf of market participants—not necessarily policy prescriptions, etc.

2)    Faithful activity requires an understanding of how an economy works.  To provide one of many examples, many conscious consumers boycott companies that have questionable supply chains.  This might seem like a statement against the company, but supply and demand tells us that it ultimately harms the employee.  If demand drops, the price will eventually adjust to a level where it is no longer financially feasible to operate for the company—leaving workers unemployed (and forced to assume alternative work that is far more dangerous or destructive—e.g., prostitution).  Understanding and being informed are often the factors that determine whether a deliberate effort to assist actually helps or hurts.

3)    An antecedent condition of markets is freedom; that is, the liberty to produce and exchange in accordance with incentive structures.  This is good.  However, this risks understanding freedom as the liberty to do whatever I want.  While such a definition might fit well within the contours of the market, this is an impoverished definition of freedom for people of faith.  In the Christian tradition, freedom is not being able to do whatever I want—it is being able to do what I know is right.  It is the capacity for right action (the word “virtue” has an etymological connection to the word “power”).  It is for this reason that H. Orton Wiley noted that “Discipline must ever precede liberty.”

4)    Finally, for Christians to desire a ‘good’ market—we must present a more robust idea of goodness itself.  Steve Deneff, Pastor of College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, helpfully points out that “good”—as it is defined in Genesis 1 and 2—is not necessarily a statement of morality.  Rather, he says, “It is a statement of function: [God] is saying: ‘It is doing the thing I created it to do.  It is whole.  It fits within the whole.’”  Markets certainly have the capacity to produce flourishing, but this is not a given.  Rather, we must have a defined sense of what it means to flourish; what it means to live well, live complete, and live whole.  If we start with what it means to be good—to “live out our God-created identity” (Matthew 5:48—The Message)—then we can appropriately gear markets in a way to assist us and others toward that end.  Point to be made: markets will not do this on their own—we are required as active participants to create the arrangements that best promote the good we both advocate and seek.  Naturally, this demands an account of goodness.

To summarize, a healthy garden will produce healthy plants. We should not confuse this with the belief that a plant will produce a healthy garden. By recognizing that we make up the economies we participate in—as complex and multi-faceted as they are—we can creatively reflect on ways to fertilize the garden so that plants may thrive.

Like so many other areas of our lives, as we reflect on the complexities of markets, we are invited to reflect upon ourselves as a community of faith.  Action is subsequent to identity.  It is in understanding market dynamism that the faith community can best proffer forth a faithful response.

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Dr. Kevin Brown is an Assistant Professor with the Howard Dayton School of Business at Asbury University. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, he spent the past four years teaching Business at Anderson University in Central Indiana. Prior to that, he worked for nearly a decade at Wells Fargo Bank, spending the last four years there as a branch president.

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