It isn’t standard operating procedure for CV contributors to write book reviews. But when I was at the Acton Institute’s Acton University the other week, I managed to get a copy of Fr. Robert Sirico’s ”Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.” Fr. Sirico, for those who aren’t aware, is the president of the Acton Institute.
While reading “Defending the Free Market,” I was reminded of what President Obama said in his inaugural address:
The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth…
[Therefore] the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.
The ostensible premise of Sirico’s book is that the president had it wrong from the start: governments rarely act swiftly, nor do they create jobs. Governments bureaucratize, depersonalize and disincentivize. In Sirico’s view, when governments act, they tend to grow, and when governments grow, they erode civic society and thrust the human person into an environment where the buffer between the state and the individual has essentially vanished.
So what’s it all about?
In many ways, “Defending the Free Market,” feels like a sequel to Michael Novak’s 1982 best-seller “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.”
Some orthodox Catholics will predictably cite Fr. Sirico’s associations with gay activists in Southern California as a young man and his friendship with Jane Fonda in the 1970s as reasons to discredit him, but Sirico, who became a Catholic priest in the late 1980s and in 1990 founded the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is rather upfront about his past in the first chapter of the book, appropriately titled “A Leftist Undone.”
On the other hand, progressive Catholics will probably view him as a Darth Vader figure who, while preaching the Gospel of Greed, defends the importance of profits and competition.
But as you read “Defending the Free Market,” you realize that Sirico is none of the caricatures his critics portray him to be. In reality, he is closer to Frank Meyer and William. F. Buckley’s fusionism than anything else.
However, it was interesting to see how upfront Sirico is about the inadequacies of libertarianism’s understanding of “economic man”:
Homo economicus serves a purpose in economics literature. But we need to be careful not to mistake it for an accurate representation of man. In real life, people are motivated by much more than what economists describe as “maximizing utility” – especially where “utility” is understood in narrowly materialistic terms.
He also condemns Ayn Rand’s anthropology:
Her foundational belief in radical individualism – an autonomy that precludes social obligation and responsibility – is problematic.
In fact the selfishness and radical individualism at the heart of Rand’s defense of capitalism stand in conflict with the very institutions that Rand wants to defend. The free market rests on the fact that human beings are not just individuals but social beings.
Economics is no laughing matter to Sirico. In the book, he credits economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek’s writings on the rights of the individual for having turned him away from socialism. And in an interview with the Daily Caller, he cited Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit” as one of the three books other than the Bible to influence his worldview the most.
In “Defending the Free Market,” Sirico addresses literally every topic imaginable related to economics in ten brief chapters: 1) A Leftist Undone 2) Why You Can’t Have Freedom without a Free Economy 3) Want to Help the Poor? Start a Business 4) Why the “Creative Destruction” of Capitalism Is More Creative than Destructive 5) Why Greed Is Not Good – and Why You Can Get More of It with Socialism than with Capitalism 6) The Idol of Equality 7) Why Smart Charity Works – and Welfare Doesn’t (8) The Health of Nations: Why State-Sponsored Health Care Is Not Compassionate 9) Caring for the Environment Doesn’t Have to Mean Big Government and 10) A Theology for Economic Man
Sirico doesn’t run through these topics in the typical laundry list fashion. Instead, he keeps the reader interested by sprinkling the text with Bible verses and personal experiences that include stories from his childhood in Brooklyn.
He also offers solutions to many of today’s most vexing problems: how do we effectively provide foreign aid, what does smart charity actually look like, and what is the best way to cure poverty? He spoke about one of those solution, a program called PovertyCure, with National Review Online and CV contributor Kathryn Jean Lopez not long ago. The full interview can be found here.
Should I read it or not?
What Fr. Sirico has provided us with is an insightful defense of why the market economy is the best economic system for mankind.
Some of the topics found in “Defending the Free Market” can get rather heady for people unfamiliar with economics, so make sure you have a highlighter and a note pad at your side. But if you miss anything, just jot down the books referenced in the suggested reading lists at the end of each chapter so you can learn at your own pace.
I believe that Catholics will enjoy this aggressively written book. It is a refreshing reminder to hear that the free market is not some mythic beast that tramples over everything in its path; it is an economic system built on trust, mutual respect and an appreciation for human creativity that has helped millions of people escape poverty.
Stephen Kokx is an adjunct professor of political science and featured columnist at RenewAmerica.com. Follow him on twitter @StephenKokx