The market as God: Humanity suffers when free markets go too far

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing columnist

The title of a new book by retired Harvard theologian Harvey Cox is also this column’s title, but we shall conclude rather than start with his argument. We could start with the first of Wendell Berry’s questions in his “Questionnaire:”  “How much poison are you willing to eat for the success of the free market and global trade?” Or with Pope Francis’ claim that a “deified market” has created “a globalization of indifference.”

For Advocate-Messenger readers, we can best use the “Thumbs” column of June 13 headed “Supply and demand health care” as our entry point. It begins: “There are lots of aspects of our society that function best when free-market principles are followed … There are, however, some things you don’t want controlled by the free market.” Health care for those in need is the “Thumbs” target. It cites several pharmaceutical products that had their prices escalate drastically as they proved their effectiveness for opioid overdose reversal (naloxone), reversal of potentially fatal allergic reactions (EpiPens), the treatment of muscular dystrophy in children, or the treatment of AIDS in Africa. Astronomical costs in such circumstances offend our humanity. They deserve a “thumbs down.” What the market will bear is sometimes unbearable.

Another promising entry point is the scholarly critiques of “economic fundamentalism.”  Writing in Socio-Economic Review, (“Confronting Economic Fundamentalism,”2007), sociologist Fred Block defines this position as a “vastly exaggerated belief in the ability of self-regulating markets to solve problems” such as poverty, political instability and environmental degradation.

Australian economist Leo Boldeman entitles his 2007 book The Cult of the Market: Economic Fundamentalism and Its Discontents. To him, economic fundamentalism claims a moral authority based on “an assertion of superior economic knowledge” of the way the economy does and should operate. With the government only intervening to protect private property and uphold contracts, the market is always assumed to be “morally benevolent.” A rising tide will lift all boats.

Using mathematical models, this approach assigns a monetary value to all factors in economic and political decision making instead of understanding economic developments as the result of complex and unpredictable social activities. The common good is reducible to what produces the most economic growth. Social actors are reduced to consumers driven solely by self-interest and competition for power. This school of economic theory is considered by some the only social science.  

So where is the problem? Trying to commodify mountains, forests, water, and air is a problem for starters. And as some feminist economists ask, what about non-monetized production in the care economy, such as unpaid domestic and community work done mostly by women?  What of the global financial crisis of 2008, which cost millions of people their homes, jobs and livelihoods? Hindsight suggests the crash could have been foreseen and controlled if analysts had been less doctrinaire in their thinking and there had been more regulation and restriction of the movement of capital.

Then there is the plight of small farmers in developing countries mainly reliant on agriculture.  When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund condition the disbursement of loans on abandonment of the supportive role of national governments no matter what the stage of development of the country’s economy, small farmers can become redundant.  Government spending on health and education is withdrawn. Declines in literacy and rises in maternal mortality often follow.

In richer countries, the social safety net that has characterized the social democracies of Europe is being dismantled in order to cut taxes on the wealthiest, with dire human cost. As Union Theological Seminary social ethicist Gary Dorrien, winner of the 2017 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, observes: “In every nation with a social democratic tradition (coupled with a market economy), everyone’s health care is covered, the power of private money in the political system is curtailed, and nearly everyone recognizes that there is such a thing as an intolerable level of economic inequality.” The U.S. lags on all of these counts.  

These political pitfalls can have “religious” roots, as the title of Harvey Cox’s book suggests.  When the free market becomes like a religion and is, as Cox states, the master rather than the servant of society, the God of the Bible with a bias for the poor is traded for the God of the Market, through whose claimed neutral objectivity income inequality continues to worsen.

This Market religion has its own myths of origin, its doctrines of sin and redemption, its priests and prophets, its rituals and sacred spaces, but its theological shortcomings are found in its failure to acknowledge the contingencies and paradoxes of human existence. We are not only coldly rational pursuers of self-interest; we are also reciprocating, cooperating sharers of our common humanity.

Cox bemoans the way in which a “sacralized market” has endowed corporations with personhood — complete with blamelessness, immortality and unlimited freedom to contribute to political campaigns. He alleges that this deified market can’t go on forever; we are destroying the planet that shelters us.

Cox has a 12-step plan for the decentralization of the market (see, too, Berry’s advocacy for localized economies). Correcting the problems resident in the personhood of corporations and the immense concentrations of wealth and power at the top, he urges more democratic participation at every level of the government and the economy.  

No political or economic system or theory deserves deification. Checks and balances are needed in economic theory as well as political theory. One of the theological giants of the 20th Century, Reinhold Niebuhr, left us with an aphorism that we forget at our peril. Revised for inclusive language, it reads:

“Our human capacity for justice makes democracy possible; our human inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”