The Morality of the Market Economy? A Reply to Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest who has been recruited into the Acton Institute’s side project of manufacturing a pro-capitalist social teaching for the Christian East, opined earlier this month that shifts in retail praxis during this “holiday season” away from the supersized “Black Friday” model (e.g., stores opening up on Thanksgiving) was due to the “moral cues of shoppers.” According to Jensen, shoppers wishing to do wholesome things have helped reshape the behavior of retailers by shaming them into dialing-down their formerly aggressive marketing campaigns for “Black Friday”-exclusive deals and keeping their doors closed so that their employees can spend Thanksgiving (an atrocious holiday) with their families. This alleged shift “is critical for helping us understand the moral goodness of the market economy,” or so says Jensen. Here are a few more of his words:

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Carlton on Capitalism

Eastern Orthodox writer Clark Carlton, whose podcast Faith and Philosophy runs on Ancient Faith Radio, broadcasted some critical remarks on capitalism last month. It’s an interesting listen (or read—a transcript is available as well) despite its brevity. As Carlton points out, capitalism did not usher in the era of private property; that concept existed long ago. But more importantly, capitalism is not about “free markets.” Without money manipulation, biased tax schemes, and tilted regulation, contemporary capitalism could not survive. While these observations are all well and good, Carlton is a bit vague about what should replace capitalism. Here is his conclusion:

The only real alternative to capitalism is something along the lines of what Jefferson envisioned. This is similar to the vision of the Catholic distributivists, such as Belloc and Chesterton, and to the third way of the Protestant economist Wilhelm Röpke. The foundation of such a system is widespread property ownership and decentralized government.

There problem here is that some of Carlton’ does not address the contingent of Christians (including Eastern Orthodox) aligned with thank-tanks like the Acton Institute who promote the idea that the only way you can achieve widespread ownership and decentralization is through the adoption of libertarian economic policies. Such ideologues posit that what Carlton is critiquing isn’t “real capitalism” but rather “crony capitalism”—a disease which can be cured through massive deregulation, tax cuts, and widespread privatization of all goods and services. These libertarian Christians would likely argue that implementing the Jeffersonian, distributist, or ordoliberal visions would result in illicit confiscatory policies that would do more economic harm than good, and so the real task at hand should be clearing government out of the economy altogether in order to let the market breathe freely, regardless of the result.

Of course, the Actonites and their allies have no proof that all will be fine and well if their policy preferences become the law of the land. The rest their conclusions on a theoretical framework derived from the heterodox “Austrian School” of economics, one which—by their own admission—has never been fully put into practice. Although serious-minded “Austrians” dismiss utopianism, they have not been able to demonstrate thus far that their economic approach will yield better social outcomes than either the “crony capitalism” they claim to detest or some alternative approach. At best they have made a plausible case that free-market policies work better than centralized, command-planned policies, but even that conclusion has been met with serious criticism over the decades (criticism which many Austrians prefer to ignore rather than answer).

It’s not clear how much Carlton agrees or disagrees with Acton’s economic orientation. His critique of capitalism also serves as a broad critique of taxation and regulation as well. Does Carlton deny that taxes and regulation serve some useful purpose in society? Does he believe it is appropriate—and moral—for local municipalities to regulate businesses in accordance with longstanding customs and social norms? If Carlton’s desire is to see an economic system put into place which is compatible with the Eastern Orthodox faith, then surely he must agree that the economy must be seen as subservient to the common good, one which finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ Jesus alone.