Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Market Laws and Religious Culture
I have been watching a lot of the 24 news stations lately. They bring in every specialist in economics to speak on various theories and suppositions about the recession – its causes, cures, and projections. The idea seems to be if we find the underlying secret riddle of the market then all will be well. With Bernard Madoff pulling of one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in American history ($50 Billion)in the wake of the Fannie Mae, Tyco, Citigroup, and Enron scandal it seems a new crisis is presenting itself.
As good Americans we are happy with the separation of church and state and see the economy as a purely worldly matter – a system dictated by rules of the market – product and demand – entrepreneurship – laissez-fare capitalism and so forth. In the tradition of Adam Smith and his “Wealth of Nations” we have understood that the market is incompatible with ethics because voluntary “moral” actions contradict market rules and drive the moralizing entrepreneur out of the game. Simply put the Christian who governs his business primarily as an ethicist rather than a rigid capitalist will eventually be pushed completely out of the market. It is commonly held that market laws, by their very nature will effectively accomplish progress and lead to distributive justice, peace, and prosperity.
We attribute a quasi-religious creed to the “market laws” as being inherently good and eternally progressive in nature. What we have done is presupposed the effectiveness of a free market apart from the ethical, ontological, and philosophical underpinnings of the human assembly driving the market. Given that questions regarding ethics and ontology are only articulated by a religious system, maybe church and economic power-brokers ought to more carefully consider how to relate to each other.
Is the economy governed by market laws – supply and demand? Or is its governance dictated by a more subjective influence of moral consensus and healthful inter-relationships among the human community? Where my Grandfather’s generation saw their identity as extremely relational to their work organization, most workers today have little or no sense of identity as being in and of their particular work of civic organization. Where the last generation remained loyal to a firm for years, now workers enter and leave organizations as rapidly as possible if an opportunity presents itself. Feeling “bored” or “tired” of working a certain job is probably the most popular reason for attrition and turnover in the workplace. Motivations related to “transcendence,” and “Self-actualization” have replaced more time honored virtues such as “honor,” “loyalty,” and “dependability.”
My intention here is not to be the old codger who laments the golden days of times past. Rather it is to consider the religious and philosophical foundation that more actively controls markets than static economic principles or theories. For examples, economically what does it mean that people more seldom associate themselves with their job and organization. What does it mean for a market if a worker’s desire for “self fulfillment” trumps his/her association with the vocation in which they have been placed? Morally speaking, if the philosophical-religious axiom of “Love thy Neighbor’ is not stated in parochial and public schools what are the consequences for a certain body politic? While free market economies were articulated by religious men of religious sentiments in deeply religious societies what does it means for the unbelieving, individualist, who’s only aim is self fulfillment, self-consumption, and self gratification. As rigid individualism expresses itself in a post-Christian culture, what type of market will ultimately present itself?
The housing crisis is indicative of the irresponsible stewardship of money and the premature grappling for that which is unaffordable. A frightening segment of the population is living way beyond their means with highly leveraged home and car loans, and useless consumer or luxury type goods. Millions of Americans who bought McMansion homes were banking on the future and long term success of the markets. Yet, we live in a world where economic speculations beyond two or three years is becoming a farcical task given the volatility of world markets, and increasing political pressures involving rogue regimes and terrorism.
We ought not see the market and present economy as operative apart from western society (particularly American culture). The market does not operate autonomously by nameless plastic workers who pour into factories and office cubicles. Markets form from the most elementary principles of birth, life, death, and the content of the human mind and heart. Market laws of maximum profit, that form apart from an ethos of love of neighbor, will taken by themselves destroy any economic system from inside-out. Self-restraint and love of neighbor combined with entrepreneurship and devoted workers are the marks of a successful long term economy.