The Freedom of the Christian Market

The Freedom of the Christian Market

Since arriving in the US some seven years ago, I have become accustomed to questions asking me what it is like to come from a socialist country.  Now, I'm not sure exactly what constitutes a `socialist' country; but in the popular American imagination it seems to focus on the provision of a national (or `socialised') health service.   The merits and demerits of such a system are often debated on anecdotal evidence - good experiences here, bad experiences there.  Few Americans (or British people) I have met have any real mastery of the economic arguments pro and con; but passions run deep on both sides of the debate.


Ironically, of course, the last few weeks have seen America become more of a socialist country than the UK has ever been.  After a series of catastrophic crises on the financial markets, the federal government seems to be stepping in to bail out the banking system.  In short, one could provocatively state this in the following terms: the government is in the process of nationalizing the banks.  Forget the NHS; when the government buys the banks, your savings, and your debts, that is socialism. 


The irony is, I hope, not lost on those on the Christian Right who so closely identify biblical Christianity with the American way of free marketeering.  I suppose that, in the US, it is perhaps a little difficult to do anything else, given the fact that both of the major political parties essentially agree on the virtues of capitalism, democracy etc.  It is the air that everyone breathes, and, to be honest, there are no realistic alternatives out there; it is therefore perhaps not surprising that they have taken on the status of absolute, non-negotiable truths, with differences appearing rather in other areas, be they identity politics, details of tax allocations etc.  Despite the Manichean, apocalyptic rhetoric that you get from both sides, the current American election is, indeed, an election about almost nothing, given that, if past records are anything to go by, a victorious Republican will likely be as socially liberal in practice as a Democrat, and a victorious Democrat as fiscally prudent (or not) as a Republican.  Either way, the fundamentals of the free market will be unquestioned, since we stand at the end of a thirty year period where its principles have reached their apotheosis, with everything, from problems with healthcare to environmental pollution apparently susceptible to solution if only the markets can be freed-up to do their business.


Yet the current banking crisis indicates that the system is not infallible.  Of course, we have seen tremors like this before: the number of airline companies that have been on the verge of bankruptcy and kept afloat by government intervention, just seems to keep on growing.  They are too big to fail, or so the wisdom has it; well, if airlines are too big to fail, then for sure those companies that basically underwrite the country's mortgage debt and determine the price of money are too big to fail.  Hence, the need for government bail-outs.


The markets have failed, and this should (I hope!) give those Christians with a blithe faith in the free market system at least some pause for thought.  Why, we should ask, has this system that is supposed to be self-regulating been so badly shaken?  Who is responsible?


Now, I have studied history too long to believe that it is ultimately driven by great individuals.  The Great Man Theory of history, so ably expounded by Thomas Carlyle in the nineteenth century, has a certain romantic appeal, and might still speak to the benighted followers of such as Ayn Rand, but it can scarcely account for the facts.  History is shaped by much larger social, economic, and cultural forces than can ever be summed up by, focused, or determined by a single individual.  The role of Hitler and Stalin as individuals was critical in the Second World War; but had they never existed, in all likelihood, the ongoing crisis in European politics that was the aftermath of the First World War would have caused some immense conflagration - Goebbels could have been a Hitler; Molotov or Mikoyan a Stalin; and it goes without saying that one lunatic with a deep-seated hatred of the Jews could not organise the Holocaust all by himself; rather, the social, cultural and economic conditions all had to be aligned for such a thing to take place.


All of this is to say that, when we look at the crisis in the markets and try to play the blame-game, then we should avoid reducing the problem to one individual or even to groups.  Cries of `It's the President', `It's Congress', `It's the Democrats', `It's the Republicans' and `It's the banks' all have a certain appeal.  After all, it's always good to blame `them' rather than 'us.'  Indeed, speaking for myself, I reckon it was the Welsh wot dunnit all along; and any evidence to the contrary merely shows how deep and subtle is the vast Welsh conspiracy behind it all.  Well, no, actually I don't believe that at all, for the simple reason that any attempt to apportion blame to an individual or to isolate blame on to a particular group or organization is ultimately too simplistic.  Governments, banks, political parties, mortgage traders - they are all intertwined in a way that makes such a crisis as we now face a result of a synthesis of mistakes committed by a multitude of miscreants, not the monumental miscalculation of a few.


So why did the markets not stop the problem?  After all, according to some conservative pundits, the markets are like the force of gravity - neutral, impersonal, scientific, perpetually moving towards an economic equilibrium that promotes freedom, prosperity and all-round good health - social, cultural and, above all, financial.   The answer, of course, is that market forces are ultimately functions of human behaviour, albeit on a macro-level; and human beings, being as depraved and as blinded as they are, generate market forces which reflect that depravity.  Now, the response will no doubt come from some conservatives that the market actually provides a mechanism for mitigiating, or even obliterating, this depravity by the fact that competition leads to a cancelling out of depravity. For example, those who argue that the free market will solve environmental problems will make the valid observation that it is in no-one's best interest to so pollute the planet that we die of toxic fumes or global warming. So Mrs Ruth Less-Exploiter, CEO of Megadirt Factories Incorporated, will, by virtue of self-interest, curb her use of fossil fuels etc because she does not want to live in a world where she can hardly breathe; nor will she be able to sell products made in an environmentally destructive way to the wider public.


The argument, even in the brief and simplistic way I have expressed it here, has a certain specious force. But I would argue that the problem with such arguments is that they take no real account of the radical nature of human depravity.  They assume we know what is best for us and how to achieve it; and that, possessing that knowledge, we will abide by it.  Both assumptions are woefully naïve and unmitigatedly Pelagian. As a human being in rebellion against God, I automatically assume that I am the centre of the universe, the measure of all things, that I know best what is good for me and for everyone else, and that `it' - whatever bad thing we care to think of - is not going to happen to me.  Indeed, at times, I might even take a perverse pleasure in running the risk of `it' happening to me in order to prove that it cannot, and that I am special.  You only have to look at the sporadic rise in unprotected promiscuous sex amongst gay men, even those with an acute understanding that AIDS is an ever-present risk, to see that the thrill of the risk, the ecstasy of the moment, trumps notions of self-preservation and radically distorts our understanding of what is and is not in our best self-interest.   A system that assumes equilibrium and stability can be achieved by my self-interest being curbed, restrained, or even neutralised by your self interest is woefully naïve.  It fails to understand the narcissism that lies at the heart of fallen human existence; it fails to understand the fact the hedonism is always a more powerful drive than prudence; and, in its silly belief that competing market forces will neutralize evil, falls vulnerable to that folksy-but-true adage, two wrongs do not make a right.


So who is responsible for the current disaster?  We all are.   We are all complicit in a world that has increasingly taught people that value in life is a function of the market.  This is not a return to the Great Man Theory of history; none of us as an individual carries all responsibility; but just as every mass event in history is both the result of macro-economic and social forces, and the result of countless individuals behaving in particular ways, so this crisis is both a product of our times, and an action in which we have all had a hand.  We are all complicit in creating and fostering a culture of material acquisition, and a world which, in order to ensure insane levels of economic growth, instills insane levels of material aspiration in its people.  An easy sell to a fallen race which now naturally exalts greed and hedonism as virtues and sees quality of life in terms of how much we can consume in comparison to others.  Every time you turn on the television, somebody is trying to tell you in some commercial or other that your life is imperfect, and is imperfect because you do not possess this food-mixer, that car, this holiday, that size or number of houses.  The credit boom is part and parcel of the con-trick that modern consumer society has played on us, the notion that material acquisition is what makes life meaningful.  It has provided the fuel, as untrammeled free market theory has provided the rationale, for the mess in which we now find ourselves.  And we are not victims of this; we are all at best hapless and willing dupes, at worst active perpetrators, whether borrowers or lenders; we are all part of a system that is designed simultaneously to satiate greed and exacerbate avarice.


How should Christians respond to all this?  I want to sow three thoughts in your minds.  First, realize that, while free markets might be the best way of organizing economies at the moment, they are simply the best of a bad lot.  Anything human beings create is going to be more or less a mess.  Fascism, communism, feudalism, jihadism - all are worse than what we have, and thus, in relation to these options, I am relatively happy to live where and when I do; but what we have in America is no divinely-sanctioned paradise, no foretaste or anticipation of the eschaton.   There will be no free markets in heaven (indeed, if the imagery of Rev. 18 is anything to go by, free market philosophy is quite at home on the streets of Babylon!).  Free market economies are a provisional and contingent form of economic organization, valid, so it seems, at this moment in time.  Are they `the end of history' as some have claimed?  Well, to invest them with absolute eschatological significance shows more indebtedness to post-Marxist right-wing Hegelianism than to the Bible.


Second, let's abandon the bombastic bunkum of `the morality of the markets,' language that is particularly embarrassing when it comes from the lips of professing Christians. Morality is a predicate of people, not impersonal economic systems.  Markets have no morality above and beyond that which is exhibited in the lives of those who buy and sell in them; and as these people are fallen, we should not be surprised that the markets ultimately reflect that fallenness, just as any other human-designed-and-staffed system does.  And make no mistake: economic libertarianism and social conservatism are uneasy and volatile bedfellows, whatever the Christian Right might like to tell you.  When you can save money by killing babies in the womb and by euthanizing the old and the weak, and when you can make oodles of dosh by selling designer clothes to the `gay community' and by marketing fragrances bearing the name of a beautiful but promiscuous Hollywood actress, then guess what?  In a market-driven world, the case against abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and a beauty that is only skin deep and allied to a sleazy lifestyle becomes increasingly difficult to make; indeed, the morality of the market would dictate that a day will come - and perhaps has already come - when it will appear immoral even to try.


Third, let's avoid naive versions of the blame game for the current crisis.  I know that saying this will win me few friends, but, frankly, to blame the politicians is massively to overestimate their importance; and the banks could not have done what they did without a large, compliant, and greedy population to jump in to the whirlpool of easy credit which they created. The subprime mortgage crisis is a function of a society built on greedy and unrealistic material aspirations.  It is the society we have all helped to make, even those who didn't lie on their mortgage application. We are all guilty.   Our greed and the banks' easy credit: the dream team for economic self-destruction.  It is not a financial bail-out that is needed; it is individual repentance by countless thousands of people.