Are Market Processes Moral?

Years ago, a religion professor at my college gave a talk to economics seniors on the limitations of economics and the necessity of considering religious principles in determining what we should do. Free-market economics, he said, has difficulty reconciling with the harsh criticism of market activity found in the Bible. There were, of course, other religions he could have considered, but Christianity was most familiar to these students.

One of his key points—that the economic way of thinking is not sufficient to understand the world around us—is valuable. An interdisciplinary approach to learning is indeed vital. However, I believe there are some problems with assertions that free markets and Christianity are incompatible.

The idea of free markets is about minimal intervention of the civil government into the marketplace. It is not about creating morality through markets. Neither is it an argument that people operating in a free market environment do not do bad things. It is true that markets sometimes produce things that should not be produced. For example, pornography, prostitution, and contract murder are provided in markets (and not all of these are universally illegal). And people who produce good things sometimes do so while cheating, lying, and stealing. But no market-oriented economists I know would argue that markets are expected to stamp out all unsavory and destructive behavior. A market structure allows people to accomplish their goals, but is neutral about what those goals should be.

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