Is Free Enterprise Evil?
Kenneth W. Bickford
Is free enterprise structurally evil? Does it guarantee goodness from its practitioners — or is it an impediment?
I ask because Occupy Wall Street, that movement of folks angrily bent on refashioning the American economy has suggested as much.
Here in New Orleans, a firestorm has erupted at Loyola University in response to a proposed Austrian economics master’s program. This program envisions an immersion in the political economic theories of the great 20th century libertarian thinkers of Austro-German descent, whose work is often neglected by students of political economy.
Critics see a manifest conflict with Loyola’s commitment to social justice. The objectors assert that some economic theories are structurally incompatible with goodness, and they strongly imply that this program of study is crippled by its engagement with just such theories. Since the Austrian school, almost alone among modern economics, embraces free enterprise as a nearly unalloyed good, the sharp criticism of this masters program implies a sharp criticism of free enterprise as such. And if an economic theory embracing free enterprise is at odds with Catholic teaching, it stands to reason that free enterprise may well be at odds with other Judeo-Christian moral systems.
So we come back to the striking question, Is free enterprise structurally evil?
As is usual in these situations, the question sort of misses the point.
At its heart, economics is a theory of providence — of how we provide for ourselves and those we care about. Economics, properly ordered, can be like a well-made tool: a hammer or a screwdriver, for example. However, even the best tools are indifferent to how you use them. A hammer can be used by a carpenter to build things, supporting his family, or by a thief to burgle the carpenter’s workshop. It all depends upon the intentions of the person wielding it.
Here, then, is an insight: Even the best materials, plans and tools will not produce a good outcome without well-ordered and skillfully executed intentions.
You can decide as a society that all land and capital should be publicly owned — a communist viewpoint — or that only consumption goods should be privately owned — a socialist viewpoint — or that these things should mostly be privately owned. (Incidentally, Communism has never worked in communities much larger than an extended family.)
But none of it will create a good society until that society possesses social and spiritual graces, that is, we might say, “spiritual capital” — our human belief in, and commitment to, something transcendently greater than selfish interests. Spiritual capital is the connective tissue bridging the best outcome with the mere mechanical aspects of economic theory.
All of which suggests that the common good can be compatible with free enterprise — but only when we possess the spiritual capital that commits us to a greater good.
What can we say about the human desire to engineer a system that mechanically “manufactures” goodness in its citizens — it has ever been with us. Plato and Aristotle explored the possibility. So did Lenin.
As Plato and Aristotle concluded, it is the rough equivalent of trying to make a hammer that can never be used to hit someone in the head. How is such a thing even possible?
No, I’m afraid that any system — economic, political or plumbing — must be vitally connected to a set of transcendent beliefs before it can achieve goodness. Very little of what we call a system is so connected. In the communist Soviet Union the disconnection was official and brutally enforced.
At present in these United States, connecting one’s economic theory to a greater good is voluntary — we are encouraged to think of others while retaining the right to act selfishly. It is the same policy we have for hammers, really.
Some now suggest that perhaps our goodness shouldn’t be voluntary. Their motivations are pure, but I am afraid that should these otherwise exemplary souls succeed they will find themselves to have extinguished the only part of the American economy that was truly good: The freedom to distribute our wealth as gifts.
The iron maiden of medieval days was designed to extract several days of suffering from its victims by impaling as many body parts as possible while missing the vital organs. This is structural evil by design — and there aren’t enough good intentions in the world to turn such a tool toward the good.
It follows that some economic and political theories begin with an evil design. You can easily spot them by the millions of corpses they leave behind.
Most economic schools of thought are not so structured. They can mostly be viewed as attempts to unify human nature with economic activity. But whatever success has been achieved remains inert and lifeless without spiritual capital. The scientific-mindset of our society ignores spiritual capital, and we ought to discuss that — vigorously.
The mistake of many — both conservative and liberal — is their pernicious belief that we can engineer human goodness. We can’t — at least not in the way that they imagine.
But we can connect economic acts with goodness; a connection, incidentally, that came as easily as breathing to our ancestors.
Established in spring of 2010, the Center for Spiritual Capital is a first of its kind at a Catholic university and second in academia only to Yale University’s Spiritual Enterprise Institute. The Center for Spiritual Capital was founded as a full-service resource center, providing everything from curriculum enhancement and faculty development to seminar planning and advice to small corporations and nonprofits. The center is aimed at serving industry leaders and students alike, who choose to exercise more profound roles as entrepreneurs, in both commerce and culture, and to honorably contribute to the betterment of society.
On February 13, 2012, Loyola’s Center for Spiritual Capital will further explore the question Christianity and Free Enterprise Economics: Compatible or in Conflict? 7 p.m. in room 114 of Miller Hall. All are welcome.