markets and economies

David L. Bahnsen:

[Rusty] Reno’s ongoing mistakes are derived from his first mistake — the straw-man claim that market orthodoxy seeks to value everything solely on market principles. This simply is not true. A rigorous defense of the price mechanism in how goods and services are transacted does not require any such framework for how we understand truth, beauty, goodness, and love. Believing in the transcendent things and believing in them with the depth and breadth that moral enlightenment and spiritual nourishment provide makes us better market actors. That Reno and I are living in a time where the clear and unmistakable maladies of culture are evidenced in the marketplace does not make the forum for our observation the cause of what we observe. I know it is frustrating, unsatisfying, and in many cases, unacceptable, but the moral deterioration of society evidenced in various aspects of our marketplace are the fruits of idolatry, low regard for family, disdain for neighbor, and a general abandonment of Ten Commandments ethics. Markets cannot assure regard for neighbor or beauty, but a disdain for markets can assure us of impoverished conditions for our neighbors and a limited landscape for the creation of beauty. 

Bahnsen makes a point worth considering here but my general position with regard to markets is closer to Reno’s. (My general position as opposed to my specific policy preferences, which are very far from Reno’s.)

Bahnsen makes a distinction between culture and markets that’s simply not sustainable. Markets are part of culture — i.e. they’re among the things that human beings collectively do — and we have plenty of evidence that the people who are most determined to make money in the markets tend also to exploit the weaknesses of the other parts of culture for their gain. That is, market thinking is like kudzu: a powerfully invasive species that can conquer an entire ecosystem if it is not forcibly restrained. The logic of markets always wants to extend its reach into sphere of culture in which it does not belong, and its spread should be closely observed and resisted. 

As Augustine taught us long ago, we live in a single culture governed by what Wendell Berry calls two economies in tension with one another. (Perhaps some readers will know what I mean if I say that we live in a space like the one doubly occupied by Besźel and Ul Qoma. Which reminds me that I need to write something about that fascinating book.) At least some degree and kind of sphere sovereignty is suggested by Jesus’s instruction that we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. The problem is that capitalist kudzu doesn’t respect such distinctions, which is how we get surveillance capitalism and, ultimately, metaphysical capitalism. (See the tags at the end of this post.) 

The market is not something other than culture; it is an element of culture that wants to become the whole thing, as kudzu wants to spread and as water wants to run downslope. If a culture is going to thrive this tendency must be resisted, and such resistance requires constant vigilance and political imagination — both of which are in very short supply.  

P.S. The whole matter of alternative (and possibly irreconcilable) economics is central to thinking wisely about out cultural moment. In addition to the link above to Wendell Berry on the “two economies,” see also: 

UPDATE: “So what lessons, if any, remain from Polanyi for us today? At the broadest level of his argument, the recognition that there is no bright-line division between the economy and society continues to be an important, if still underrecognized point. Recognizing it explicitly would improve policy discussions all around.”