Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Faith in the Free Market? Part 1

Should we have faith in the free market to deliver our common good?

This is perhaps the greatest economic debate of the past few centuries, and one of the more interesting things to talk about as an economist with non-economists, usually because they aren’t that interested in the nitty-gritty of economic discourse and instead prefer to dialogue about politics.

It is also interesting to me because there are Catholics on both sides of the fence: those who vehemently support the free market and those who vehemently attack it. I’ve already noted how CST approaches the battle between liberalism or capitalism and socialism or collectivism in this multipart series. The case they present both against and for the free market is compelling and good, but there are other ways to prove or disprove its effectiveness in achieving the good for society. This is my purpose for this multi-part series. I wish to explore the arguments used to justify or rebuke the free market and point then toward the conclusions I take from this exploration of which we can engage in a friendly debate.

Two great mistakes in this debate must be noted at the outset. The first is that many treat this as a black and white problem. Those who advocate for the free market tend to argue that any measure against it puts us on the road to serfdom, or on the road to soviet communism which clearly had disastrous consequences for humanity. Those who attack the free market are usually less black and white, but are also guilty of putting the blame on the free market as a whole. There is no gray area, there is no middle option, there are no alternatives to communism or capitalism. Pope Pius XI called these the twin rocks of shipwreck—extreme individualism and extreme collectivism. The great mistake here is failing to see alternatives to these twin wreckers of ships. Rejection of “the free market” does not necessarily mean support for total communism and vice versa. We must be able to envision degrees of free market-ness or collectivism and we must direct them always to our common good.

The other great mistake is (logically) prior to the first mistake. It is failing to recognize that there is no such thing as a truly free market. That is, no market system is completely free from government intervention. Free markets fundamentally require private property and enforceable contracts, which require an enforcer. Absent of government, ‘free’ markets are closer to black markets where the market actors provide their own governance, which is why, for example, illegal drug markets are particularly violent. Absent of government protection of property and contracts, they must enforce it themselves with power, weapons, and violence. So a truly free market system is closer to anarchy, and most free market proponents are well aware of this (some seem to forget it though). However, since the government is involved in protecting property and enforcing contracts they are necessarily involved with defining property and legality of contracts and so their ‘intervention’ into markets is more of a degree than of a kind. They DO intervene, the question is, how much? This lends itself well to the lesson learned from the first mistake—free market-ness is a degree, not a black and white situation.

The danger or trap that is so easy to fall into, is putting your faith in the free market, this institution that is supposed to bring about our overall good out of the self-interested actions of individuals. We put our faith and our trust in a direction-less institution that does not see persons and does not consider their good. If we are to rely on a higher degree of free market-ness to provide the common good, then we should do so with good reasoning, but we should not expect our selfish actions to result collectively in the common good. To me, nothing could be more anti-Christian. Christ’s teaching is all about the two commandments upon which all the rest sit: Love your God, who is love itself, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love is an authentic gift of self, not a devotion entirely to one’s self-interests.

(There are those who argue self-interest does not necessarily equal selfishness. This of itself requires a long response, but quickly, my reply is: why risk confusing the two? Those who do not properly understand the distinction will think it’s valid to act selfishly when you argue for self-interested action. And why put the emphasis on negative freedom? Authentic freedom does involve freedom from coercion, but must always be directed toward the good which might mean a restriction of complete negative freedom, or complete self-interested action. Christian defense of the free market should make no reference to self-interested action, but rather to Christian self-giving actions. In this case, it is quite reasonable for a Christian to argue that greater free market-ness will allow self-giving actions to collectively bring about the common good).

So the task set to us then, is to decide the appropriate degree of free market-ness for a good society, or from the Catholic Social Teaching perspective, for the common good, which necessarily includes justice, truth, and charity.

How much should the government intervene? In which situations should the government intervene more rather than less and less rather than more?

Economists of all persuasions have researched the impacts of policy on the economy and economic relationships and worked to develop models to support their case on these very questions. Some have started with the data to support their conclusions. Some have started with their conclusions and worked to find data to support them. Others have largely ignored data and have instead constructed great mathematical models based on certain assumptions about human behavior to support certain conclusions.

This last group has been the dominant group in Economics for over a century now and so most of this post addresses their arguments, but I will also present data to support certain conclusions as well. The importance of this is that many politicians and the public in general take the advice of economists on matters of ‘free market-ness’. So if you’re going to listen to us, then you should know exactly what we are saying, the strengths and weaknesses of our arguments and models, and what conclusions we can then draw from them.

Part 2 will take a closer look at the model most often used to defend the free market which also happens to be the model everyone learns in principles of economics courses.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Thank you Pope Benedict XVI

Thank you Pope Benedict XVI for your servant leadership! Here are some of my favorite quotes from your great encyclical Caritas in Veritate.
Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.

Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine.

Charity is love received and given.

Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.

To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.

It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new. It is one thing to draw attention to the particular characteristics of one Encyclical or another, of the teaching of one Pope or another, but quite another to lose sight of the coherence of the overall doctrinal corpus.

The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development.

Progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient.

Openness to life is at the center of true development.

Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.

In comparison with the casualties of industrial society in the past, unemployment today provokes new forms of economic marginalization, and the current crisis can only make this situation worse. Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering. I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world's economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: “Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.

The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.

The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension. Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society.

In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well. Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function. And today it is this trust which has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a grave loss.

It is nevertheless erroneous to hold that the market economy has an inbuilt need for a quota of poverty and underdevelopment in order to function at its best.

Thus every economic decision has a moral consequence.

An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become license. Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defense and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good. Otherwise, if the only basis of human rights is to be found in the deliberations of an assembly of citizens, those rights can be changed at any time, and so the duty to respect and pursue them fades from the common consciousness.

Denying the right to profess one's religion in public and the right to bring the truths of faith to bear upon public life has negative consequences for true development. The exclusion of religion from the public square — and, at the other extreme, religious fundamentalism — hinders an encounter between persons and their collaboration for the progress of humanity. Public life is sapped of its motivation and politics takes on a domineering and aggressive character. Human rights risk being ignored either because they are robbed of their transcendent foundation or because personal freedom is not acknowledged.

Secularism and fundamentalism exclude the possibility of fruitful dialogue and effective cooperation between reason and religious faith. Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent. For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at an enormous price to human development.

The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.

Technologically advanced societies must not confuse their own technological development with a presumed cultural superiority, but must rather rediscover within themselves the oft-forgotten virtues which made it possible for them to flourish throughout their history.

I eagerly await the next Pope's social encyclical(s)!