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Should the Church Rethink the Merits of Free Markets?

November 15, 2017 | Rebecca Au-Mullaney

TKC President Thornbury, R.R. Reno and Father Sirico
The King’s College President Thornbury, First Things editor R.R. Reno and Acton Institute Founder Father Sirico (left-right)

On Tuesday November 7, The King’s College sponsored a debate on the merits of free markets featuring R.R. Reno, editor of the prestigious journal First Things, and Father Robert Sirico, co-founder and president of the world-renowned Acton Institute.

Centered around the question “Can free markets promote human flourishing?” the debate was prompted by a recent article in First Things in which Reno argued that free market capitalism has prioritized individual freedom at the expense of religious and civic life. A slew of commentary followed. President Gregory Alan Thornbury described the mixed reception of Reno’s article with an analogy from Acts 17: “Some mocked, some said he seems to be preaching strange deities, and some said ‘We would like to hear you again on this matter.’”

Sensing the potential for fruitful discussion, The King’s College board member Nathan Bond suggested the idea of a debate on the church’s stance on free markets. King’s invited Father Sirico, a champion of economic freedom, to contrast Reno’s reservations about free markets. The event was hosted at the Princeton Club in New York City, attracting several out-of-state visitors as well as local friends of the College, readers of First Things, and followers of the Acton Institute.

The format of the evening consisted in opening statements from each speaker, followed by brief rebuttals. President Thornbury moderated questions from the floor, and the debate concluded with brief remarks from both Reno and Sirico. Watch the full debate video here.

Reno’s thesis was that while free markets can and often do promote human flourishing, the last several decades of economic liberalism have given rise to a global oligarchy of corporate managers, government officials, NGO leaders, and technocrats. The increasing power of this oligarchy puts national sovereignty at risk, since global entities do not feel responsible to uphold one nation’s rules. “Deregulation, lower taxes, and other policies that promote economic freedom may be good for all sorts of reasons, but they will do nothing to stymie this oligarchy,” Reno said.

Moreover, in Reno’s view, an undue focus on economic freedom threatens solidarity, spiritual freedom, and a shared view of the good. He cited the forces of mass culture and advertising that have contributed to a sense of rootlessness. “Markets are human,” Reno said, “And like all things human in our fallen world, free markets can also impede human flourishing.” To check the power of the oligarchy, Reno proposed progressive corporate taxes and policies that favor small and midsize companies over gigantic corporations.

Father Sirico approached the topic from his background as the pastor of the parish of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Grand Rapids. When he was appointed pastor in 2013, Sirico found an insular congregation and in the school connected to the parish, an only nominal commitment to Christian teaching. Sirico encouraged openness to newcomers in the church. Within the school, Sirico pushed for a clearer sense of identity: mass every day, programs for homeschooled students nearby, and a family-friendly square dance to replace the oversexualized junior high dance. It was the sense of community that these reforms engendered, and not governmental subsidies, that transformed the parish.

“The solution is not less liberty,” Sirico said. “The solution is not less access to being able to enter into circles of exchange with one another; the solution is not more and more restrictions on our success.” Instead, for Sirico, the crisis of morality that he and Reno identified can only be addressed through people who are internally motivated. When communities have a shared vision, they promote human flourishing far more than a system of governmental policies, penalties, or subsidies ever could.

In the rebuttals and discussion that followed, it became clear that Reno and Sirico offer conflicting accounts of what government is able to accomplish. Reno described himself as “guardedly pessimistic about the role of government in civic life,” but argued that just as Sirico’s pastoral leadership was needed to reform his school, governmental leadership is occasionally necessary, as when government stepped in to break up the Standard Oil monopoly. “Action has to be taken to sweep away a broken system. Political action is one of the crucial ways in which civil society comes together to do something.”

Sirico, however, sees government policies as “bureaucracy that has to be managed” and expressed concerns about the character of the decision-makers. “People like us don’t get on those committees,” he quipped. For Sirico, each issue that Reno thought to address with governmental intervention would be better answered by deregulation.

Sirico and Reno also differ in the confidence they place in humans exercising choice within free markets. Sirico, thinking on the scale of his parish, envisions committed Christians producing change through cultural creativity and philanthropic communities. Reno observes dangers in capitalism on the global scale, and believes that oligarchiesmasked by unchallenged free market ideologythreaten the democratic culture needed to sustain economic freedom.

While neither Sirico nor Reno believe that the free market is sufficient for human flourishing, Sirico turns to the private sector alone. Reno, citing the pornography industry and markets that sell wombs, believes that thoughtful regulatory policies are required as technology opens more opportunities for commerce.

After the debate, the Princeton Club hummed with animated conversation. What is government for, and how much can we expect of the private sector operating freely? How does a Christian anthropology, recognizing that humans are created in the image of God but cursed by sin, relate to leaders, markets, and institutions?

President Thornbury said, “The question of whether Western Christianity is compatible with classical liberalism—particularly in the area of economics—is vital. Rusty Reno is at the forefront of Christian intellectual and religious engagement, and we at the College have greatly benefitted from the ministry of Father Sirico and the Acton Institute. It is an honor to bring such worthies to the table to consider a Christian response to the cultural issues of our age.”