True Freedom and the Economy

This Fourth of July weekend I had the privilege to finish reading William Cavanaugh’s latest book, “Being Consumed.” I am surprised and happy to say that I have good things to report. Professor Cavanaugh’s book is, in the first place, an illuminating discussion of what Christianity says to the free market. Namely, he takes the Christian teaching that the human person ought to be the central concern of our economic and political systems and draws out its consequences.

What does it mean for our central concern to be the human being? It means our economic and political systems ought to be conducive to proper human flourishing – to true human freedom. True human freedom is not maximized by a base libertarianism where we are free to choose rightly or wrongly without influence (as if such a condition could exist) - no, true human freedom is freedom for excellence, freedom to choose the good.

Cavanaugh’s first step is to apply this teaching to economics. He argues, rightly I think, that a market detached from any sense of purpose, or of the good, or of morality is not really a free market. This is another way of saying that human beings cannot and should not operate in a moral vacuum. In many ways, a persons in a free market economy acting without any sense of purpose become slaves – slaves to desire, to consumption – maybe the very act of shopping itself. This should be avoided. Cavanaugh reminds us that people need a sense of transcendent purpose. But a distinction must be made.

What Cavanaugh proposes may be revolutionary (in some sense), but he does not propose a revolution. His intention is primarily meliorative. Indeed, he forthrightly states he rejects the socialist solution:
“Even if Augustine is right about the need for objective ends to guide the will, the question remains: Who is to say what those ends are? There is no doubt that Augustine’s view can be taken in a very paternalistic direction: “We know what you really want, and we are going to organize society accordingly.” I do not wish to endorse such a view. This is the specter of a socialist command economy that free-market advocates rightly reject. Free-market advocates would prefer to have individuals make their own mistakes. That some will make bad choices is inevitable; but it is far better to give individuals the freedom to damn themselves than to subject everyone to a power that is no more guaranteed than any other individual to choose well.” (pp.15)
The issue is then the way individuals interact with each other on a personal basis, i.e., how individuals act with other individuals face to face. In Cavanaugh’s words “the direct embodiment” of free economic practices is most important. So in this way his book is not political at all; nor is it really concerned with economic systems. In fact, it assumes the free-market is here and ought to stay. His goal is to inform interested parties how to act with concern for the human person in all economic exchanges. I think this is a good goal.

I’m not technically qualified to offer criticism of his argument, but I’ll do it anyways because this is the internet. My only contention is that Professor Cavanaugh goes way out of his way to criticize defenders of the free-market economy. In this little book, he manages to take pot shots at Michael Novak and Milton Friedman. As we briefly talked about an example in an earlier post, I think he misunderstands the free-market economists. So much so that I think Michael Novak would find most of Prof. Cavanaugh’s book on target and perceptive (especially his discussion of the Eucharist and consuming rightly!). Where is the disagreement then? Cavanaugh errs in thinking that Michael Novak et al. defend a type of economics where morality plays no role, or where morality is subservient to market forces. I think this is quite simply false, and even a crude reading of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, for instance, serves to demonstrate. If Cavanaugh were to read Novak et al. as arguing specifically against socialism, (i.e. against governmental usurpation of property and the means of production) he might be willing to tolerate their use of the word freedom in a more limited, secular sense.

But anyways let me conclude by saying that this is a challenging, good, and thought-provoking book. I intend to post notable selections from it over the next few days. Aside from the cheap shots, Cavanaugh has great ideas about how we can work for greater justice and make our free-markets not only free of legal restrictions, but truly free.



How do you do… freedom

Feeling trapped?
Are those handcuffs?
Oh no, they’re not mind locked?


Freedom, free e dom, fr-eee-dom, FREEDOM! What actually is it? A concept, a reality, a belief, a fiction, a paradox, the meaning of life, the great invention, an unattainable ideal… just for starters. Getting to the bottom of it involves firstly climbing the mountain that it is. Makes you feel like a bookish Bear Grylls.

...more at lifestyleguides.blogspot.com

Zachary said...


Darwin said...

I'm interested that it seems to you that Cavanaugh incorrectly takes Novak's arguments in favor of a free market (which Cavanaugh apparently supports) for arguments that morality should have no play in the decisions of market actors. Certainly, this seems to be the stereotype of Novak that several progressive bloggers I've read have -- and it doesn't jive with Novak's shorter works (some of them explicitly aimed a businessmen and designed to drive home that point that morality _does_ have a place in market actors) that I've read.

I'm not clear what would lead to such a basic misreading being so widespread -- unless it's simply an ideological tribalism that makes one assume that "those free market guys can't possibly care about morality".

Zachary said...

Perhaps I have an impoverished understanding of Cavanaugh, but that's what I take his critique of free-market advocates to be. He laments plurality - that we do not have an enforced or at least explicit telos to guide the economy. He does not make it clear what he would establish in place of our pluralist economic and cultural order.

Perhaps the CatholicAnarchist can explain; I get the impression he is much more familiar with Cavanaugh's work than I am.

Michael J. Iafrate said...

Where are the "potshots" of which you speak? I see criticisms, not potshots.

Cavanaugh is against statist socialism. He is all for the small scale socialism of Christianity.

Zachary said...

I called those criticisms potshots because he only briefly references two economists in the whole book. (Novak and Friedman) When he does this, he takes their ideas out of context without trying to understand what they are really saying. I actually think Novak would agree with Cavanaugh if they were speaking in the same terms.

I tried to discuss an example of this here: