Column on Free Markets vs. the Pope

Free Markets vs. Pope Benedict XVI

Tibor R. Machan

        It is of course the time now, with everyone pretty confused about just how much free market capitalism had to do with the economic mess for the enemies of economic liberty to rise up and seize the day! That way they may get some mileage out of it all for their ongoing mission, namely, to prepare people throughout the society for being ruled, managed, regimented, regulated by, you guessed it, them! 


        In his recent book, Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Develpment in Charity and Truth (Ignatius Press, 2009), we are implored by the Pope to love all instead of trade, as if this really were possible among billions of people. Such dreaming has done terrible damage to humanity for centuries, so why should the current Pope not buy into it? The kind of Christian love the Pope is promoting seems to him to be anathema to free markets. His reason? That the pursuit of profit precludes love among human beings. 

        As one reviewer of the Pope’s book, Professor David Nirenberg of the University of Chicago’s Committee of Social Thought, points out in The New Republic (9/23/09)–in an attempt to simplify the book’s message, I assume–"In pursuit of profit, every individual attempts to extract the highest possible price, treating fellow citizens not as friends but as ‘foemen,’ thereby destroying the love of fellow citizens that is necessary for the common good of the polity." The reviewer brings in Socrates/Plato in support of his and the Pope’s point against self-interest. 

         But in fact while Plato warned against crude self-interest, he also wrote, "Crito, ‘When you are gone, Socrates, how can we best act to please you?’ Socrates: ‘Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too.’" What the Pope and the reviewer of his book miss is that love cannot be spread thin across the world, not even across the market place. Trade does respect individual sovereignty and thus shows a certain sensible measure of love for others. But the deeper love that the Pope and so many others, among them most notably Karl Marx, demand of us all (in opposition to self-love and a measured respect we show other people in the course of trade) is impossible except among intimates–family, friends, maybe some comrades in arms and colleagues. That kind of love requires detailed knowledge of others and such knowledge is simply unavailable to us except about very few other people (not all of whom, moreover, will deserve our love).

         The dreamers, like the Pope and his allies, would destroy genuine, realistically possible love of some few people for the sake of the shallow kind professed by politicians and celebrities. Interestingly enough, Socrates and Plato knew this when they sketched the ideal city in which love rules as against trade by quite arguably making it a utopia, something that cannot actually exist. The ideal city, like the ideal woman on the covers of Vogue or Elle, is a model imagined not a blueprint to be implemented. Yes it needs to be kept in mind but only a fool or fanatic would attempt to imitate it. 

          Socrates and Plato, when closely read, are clearly warning us against political idealism, against trying to transform the polity–or city or country–into an intimate group that’s governed by principles of loving friendship. Trade, contrary to what is intimated by these idealists, by no means precludes genuine love among people. It doesn’t insists, admittedly, that all who trade ought to love one another. The trade relationship is sensibly limited in scope–when you go shopping you need not get involved in the butcher’s family life, the car dealers hobbies, or the dentist’s personal problems. It is friends and relatives who do that, not those who populate the market place for the limited purpose of striking a good deal. And that purpose not only does not preclude pursuing friendship and other intimacies elsewhere but makes that pursuit economically possible, affordable, if you will.

          As that saying I like so much states, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Markets are not the highest of human institutions but they are excellent for the purpose for which most of us use them. 
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