As a student at a liberal Jesuit school, I often find myself facing hostility to capitalism and free markets. This frustrates me not only because I consider myself a devout Catholic, but because I also think that commerce and capitalism are great catalysts for improving lives and making America a better country.
Most of the opposition I face often comes from the “social justice” crowd, who equate social justice with wealth redistribution and anti-capitalism. There are some reasonable critiques of free markets from Catholic intellectuals, but free markets and capitalism are nevertheless still compatible with Christianity. The Catholic Church teaches that the morality of a human act relies on three parts; “the object chosen, the end in view or the intention and the circumstances of the action.”
First, an act is moral if “the object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself.” What this means is that the ends sought should be good in themselves. Free markets are simply the free exchange of goods and services. There are some services which are in themselves inherently immoral, such as contract killing or prostitution. The immorality of those acts, however, does not come from the fact that they are created in a system of free exchange. Rather, the act itself is immoral. Selling one’s goods, like art or baked goods, or one’s services, like plumbing or carpentry, is not evil because the goods themselves are not evil. Each product improves other people’s lives, whether it is by satisfying a need for nourishment, or improving the construction of someone’s house.
Secondly, an act or system can be moral if the aim is good. The Catechism states that “the end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. The intention is a movement of the will toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity.” Fixing someone’s house has the goal of improving the customer’s life in exchange for money. As stated above, there is nothing inherently evil about fixing a leaky faucet, or repairing a broken door. Each act is the voluntary improvement of two people’s lives. The nature of the free market assumes that people will only take actions which will improve their lives; therefore, it follows that a free and voluntary exchange has a good aim. This does not mean that every action is actually good, but it does mean that each party has the intention of improving his or her own life.
Finally, the circumstances under which an action is undertaken must be moral. Using force to achieve an end is evil: war, theft, rape, and murder are all examples of using force to achieve an end. However, free markets do not rely on force: they are by definition voluntary and free. Because of this, it is hard to make a case that the free market is inherently immoral.
Some on the far left will argue that capitalism and free markets are evil because they involve the private ownership of the tools of production. But under some of the oldest Christian teachings, private property is not in itself evil. The commandment “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) has the consequence of ensuring that people can keep things for themselves without fear that it will be taken. If private property was evil, why couldn’t we steal? If we were supposed to communally own property, then stealing wouldn’t be a sin, nor would it even exist.
We are also told “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Capitalism relies on truth (an inherently good and moral thing) to function, in particular truth in contracts and truth about the product. If you agree to sell a product to someone at a certain price and then refuse to do so, or instead offer a different product, you have broken a contract and lied in your dealings. Capitalism relies on honesty amongst parties to function.
Capitalism is a moral system that involves moral objects, moral means, and moral circumstances. It relies on voluntary associations and truth in the workings of the free market itself. Capitalism has a moral end of improving the lives of other people, while improving the provider’s life as well. It also conforms with many principles enshrined in Christian teaching, such as honesty, the right to one’s property, working in community, and serving the needs of others. Capitalism, in many aspects, is indeed a Christian system.
Matthew Lamb | Loyola University | @mlmb24