Are markets intrinsically moral?
The other day, a leftist Mormon acquaintance of mine and I had a brief conversation about Mitt Romney's candidacy for president. I, being staunchly anti-RINO, and refusing to believe for one second that a candidate's deeply held religious beliefs are irrelevant (as true religion constitutes the very bedrock of unalienable rights), declared my support for several of the more acceptable candidates before Romney, concluding that Romney lost the Las Vegas debate. But my friend disagreed. Citing statistical favorability amongst gamblers, he argued that market forces chose Romney. I, therefore, according to my own conservative appreciation of market forces, must be wrong, and Romney must be the most viable and acceptable option.
My friend's answer, of course, disclosed a serious misunderstanding about the beliefs of conservatives, but in recent years, this argument -- that conservatives consider markets themselves forces of morality -- has found its way out of leftist circles and into what is left of a once-great Republican party. It is not uncommon to hear men speak of the market as though the market itself would lead Americans into the brightest future, and that, strangely, the answer to America's most troublesome problems lies primarily in fiscal matters. It is a convenient answer because it is a cowardly one, requiring little thought and less heart, confusing America's symptoms as the sickness itself, and refashioning the term "fiscally conservative" into a badge of retreat paraded by social liberals instead of a quality worthy of admiration.
Of course, it cannot be argued that fiscal conservatism is of little value, whether on a moral or purely utilitarian level. But the unfortunate truth is that, perhaps due to the collapse of American Christianity and the consequent rise of libertarianism -- a secularist philosophy which seeks to alienate the supremacy of the market from traditional morality and social engineering -- many have forgotten that it is not the market which precedes morality, but rather morality which precedes the market. For the market, in and of itself, is neither intrinsically moral nor beyond the jurisdiction of natural laws, which govern every other human interaction.
For though it is oftentimes wrongly perceived that the market pertains only to commodities and currencies, there in fact exists a marketplace of humanity in every aspect of interaction -- exchanges which cannot and need not be calculated in gold. The fact that non-commercial interactions do not include transfers of property does not make them somehow less important or more worthy of regulation. Civilized men know, without spending serious time pondering the matter, that selling insulation which will give the customer cancer is wrong and must be prohibited. They understand that knowingly manufacturing cars with dysfunctional steering wheels, or negligently building homes, is wrong. They know that dumping unsafe amounts of waste into drinking or swimming water is wrong. They know that selling drugs to teenagers, or selling firearms to dangerous felons, is harmful and selfish.
It does not really matter whether these behaviors take place in a market or not. That is to say, monetary involvement does not release participants from moral responsibility, or the prohibitions which mankind knows, on some level, are entirely necessary to the maintenance of civilized society.
Rather, the market is simply a term by which men describe a conglomeration of interconnected interests. It is a tool to foster the mutually beneficial behaviors of man with man, encouraging the ingenuity, prudence, and natural camaraderie of willing participants -- an exchange of goodness for goodness, a sharpening of iron with iron, so that man can enjoy the fruits of efficiency and industrial perfection.
So what, then, of a market that not only discourages these aforementioned positive qualities, but rather fosters the vices, rewards the trickery, knowingly harms another, and in effect cheapens the characters of the men who partake of it? Is it possible that humanity could benefit from a market which rewards good not with good, but with wrong? This may indeed be a form of a market, but it serves a purpose contrary to its original intent: the betterment and empowerment of mankind itself. A market which not only fails to fulfill, but purposely subverts the very reason for which it exists is not a result of liberty; it is a result of injustice. And where justice cannot be found, neither can Lady Liberty. It is morality and justice which permit liberty, as James Madison wisely noted in Federalist #51, and liberty in goodness which permits the truly free market.
Certain critics will undoubtedly object that the regulated market is not actually free, but here a distinction must be made between a moral market and a centrally controlled market, between a conservative market and a liberal market. A moral market -- in effect the only good kind of market -- permits men to labor for their own subsistence, to choose their associates freely, to succeed and fail according to their own particular wealths of talent and wisdom, and to compete within the laws of nature and of nature's God. A controlled market, on the other hand, seeks not only to define the moral boundaries within which men may transact, but to lavish certain industries with protective measures and special entitlements, gained through political connection and illegitimately applied sophistry. The former permits competition between men, in an attempt to reward whoever produces the most good, and restrain any who by illegitimate means acquire fortune. The latter rewards men not according to how they bless their neighbors, necessarily, but rather according to whom they know -- a corrupt process enforced by the sword of the state, deserving the disgust of all just and honorable men.
It must also be said that what Americans are experiencing now -- a deluge of unnecessary and cumbersome regulations which infringe upon the natural rights of man -- is not necessarily the result of a right to regulate. It is only a matter of time before a nation, which, having denied its purpose, heritage, and God, and declaring to its children that the American Dream -- or some perversion of it, rather -- is simply to make oneself wealthy, will destroy the market not first with regulations, but instead by pursuing that wealth in a manner which begs the lawgiver to intercede. (And if a society has already become so corrupt that it is incapable of raising its own children properly, it is unlikely that the regulations with which it restrains those children will be based in wisdom or actual rights.) When the state becomes less loathsome than the neighbor, it is then that the war drums of leftists begin to beat faintly on the horizon. And as the godlessness of man increases, the clamor grows louder, and the laws begin to strangle. If men were angels, a wise man said, no government would be necessary. So, likewise, the more we become devils, the tighter become our chains.
In conclusion, it is not entirely the fault of my friend that he misunderstood the value of market forces. For too long have Republicans been content with touting the goodness of a market -- and even of democratic processes -- without actually considering that healthy markets and republics are the result of civilized and enlightened people, and never the source -- the offspring, and never the mother. But if Americans are to restore the glory of their market, it will not be accomplished simply by democratic processes. It will result from a reformation in the hearts of its citizens, a restoration from urge to duty, from consumption to production, and from the temporal to the eternal. From these are truly free markets born, and let Americans be satisfied with nothing less.
Jeremy Egerer is a recent convert to Christian conservatism from radical liberalism and the editor of the Seattle website www.americanclarity.com.