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July 25, 2004

Rebecca Blank and William McGurn's Is the Market Moral?(Brookings 2004)

Rebecca Blank and William McGurn's Is the Market Moral?(Brookings 2004)

The Pew Forum and Brookings jointly commissioned this little book on what a Christian's attitude towards the economy ought to be, by a liberal and a conservative. I found it a bit disappointing. Both authors are competent at economics, and both spend a lot of time talking about what economists know already-- that markets work very well, that there is some market failure and some government failure, and that people claim to base some rather silly economic policy prescriptions on religion. Both, however, are very much establishment figures, if of different parties, and they are too respectful of each other and others. Since they both do know economics, it is quite clear that each could have said some very pointed things about the economic idiocies of their own groups-- Blank about the Naderism of the Liberal Church, and McGurn about the Namby-Pamby Socialism of the Roman Catholic Church. And of course each could have gone after the other's group.

Becky Blank points out one difference that is almost amusing stereotypical: she quotes the Bible a lot (which is actually pretty good for a liberal), but Mr. McGurn quotes Roman Catholic church documents. And it seems where they disagree is in that Blank thinks norms are important and a market economy relies on virtue, whereas McGurn thinks that somehow free markets create virtue. I'd give Blank a victory on points there. Adam Smith's point is not that free markets make people virtuous, or that selfishness is what makes markets work, but that markets work well *even if* people are selfish and bad, so long as they at least keep their bargains and don't steal from each other. If they are virtuous, that is all the better, but what is nice about markets is that they are more robust than socialism to the presence of rascals.

Neither author meets head on the hard questions for a Christian economist, most of which, I think, concern private behavior rather than government policy. Here are some I would have liked to have seen discussed more:

1. Ought a Christian to be rich?

2. Ought people to be encouraged to work hard by the use of material incentives? Such incentives are, of course, effective, but are they too corrupting?

3. Ought a Christian to force non-Christians to pay taxes to give to the poor?

4. What laws should a Christian use to restrain immorality?

5. Ought a Christian to use the law to restrain blasphemy?

6. Should Christians let the poor suffer if to help them would make them lazy or otherwise immoral?

7. Is it wrong for a Christian to put emphasis on the material well being of himself or others instead of on spiritual things?

8. What makes a Christian liberal different from an atheist liberal? What makes a Christian conservative different from an atheist conservative?

I suppose I ought to try answering these myself some day.

The book has a couple of websites on the back cover which I might visit-- www.pewforum.org/dialogues and www.brookings.edu/religionandsociety.

Posted by erasmuse at July 25, 2004 11:09 PM

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