Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. Founded in 1990, the mission of the institute is, “to articulate a vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing.” It furthers this aim through publications, lectures and seminars that champion the centrality of private property and free-market economics to an ordered civilization. A regular guest on TV news programs and contributor to national publications, Father Sirico served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998 and is on the board of advisers of the Civic Institute in Prague. His new book is “Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy” (Regnery, 2012). You can find out more about the Acton Institute at: acton.org.
Decker: Your new book is about the moral case for a free economy. What is the morality of the marketplace and how does it work? How does the market take care of the masses better than a government safety net?
Sirico: The morality of a market is rooted in the morality of the human person who is the center of that market. In precise terms, the market itself is neither moral nor immoral, but it becomes a vehicle for the moral and economic expression of the acting human person, who has the free will to choose good or bad.
When we speak of taking care of the masses, we usually mean taking care of their material needs (though there is much, much more to people than their material needs). The material needs of people are best met in societies that are prosperous, both in terms of the abundance of economic opportunities available to them and the amount of superfluous wealth that can be used generously to support the needs of those unable to provide for themselves. The one thing we know about markets from a wide array of economic studies is that the less taxed and regulated a society is, the more prosperous it is.
Decker: Left-wingers are trying to make this year’s presidential race a referendum on capitalism, particularly in their populist attacks on Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital. You used to be a liberal who ran in the same circles as Hanoi Jane Fonda. What made you see the light, and what do today’s occupiers not understand about the greatness and rightness of the capitalist system?
Sirico: I welcome the debate on the moral case for the free economy, and not just because it will sell books. I welcome it because I am confident we have the better argument. This is something I discovered when — as an early 1970s new-left activist — I confronted an acquaintance who decided to take the time to argue the case with me and gave me some books to read, among which was [Friedrich von] Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” and Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom.” Those debates and books helped me to see that the concern I had for the economically marginalized could best be met by a productive and economically free society.
Decker: Chapter Four of your book is titled, “Why the ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism is more creative than destructive.” What do you mean by that?
Sirico: The attacks on Gov. Romney’s role at Bain Capital represent a complete ignorance of an understanding of the creative-destruction aspects of a market. The metaphor I use in “Defending the Free Market” in this regard involves pruning bushes. When I came home one day and found that the bushes that surrounded the front of the house I lived in were severely cut back, I asked the priest who did it why he killed the bushes. He explained that by trimming them back, it insured a greater possibility for them to flourish because their energy was not being directed to the most outward branches, which were sapping the strength of the whole bush.
Of course, human beings are not mere branches to be discarded, and prudent planning can help to insure a difficult but needed transition for those whose jobs are simply not economically productive. But if things are left as they are, the real threat is to the entire company (or bush, if you will), which would mean even greater human misery in the long run. I simply do not think it is reasonable to believe that companies like Bain Capital are in business to close other businesses down. They make their real profit by making unproductive companies profitable.
Decker: As a Detroiter whose father worked in the auto industry, I grew up believing that the business of America is business. It now increasingly seems that government is the senior partner in the public-private-sector relationship. How is today’s out-of-control bureaucracy a drag on U.S. competitiveness and the entrepreneurial spirit that made this country great?
Sirico: When people speak of “capitalism” today, they usually mean crony-capitalism, which is certainly not what I am attempting to offer a moral defense on behalf of and which I denounce in my book, along with corporate welfare. Those who act from within the bureaucratic mentality are looking to conserve or advance their sphere of power and so will favor their friends and political allies. When linked to business, this dynamic in effect politicizes economics so that the business person is no longer looking to please the consumer (thus serving people while making a profit), but will look to increase political power. The result is lobbying because businesses hire people to approach politicians and their representatives to curry favor in order to do business. This is not a phenomenon of markets but of politics.
Decker: You have warned that civilizations fail and the reason they fail is plain. “When civilizational virtues are eroded from within, people lose the capacity to defend the good things those habits enabled previous generations to achieve,” you explain, and cite ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and 1930s Germany as examples. Millions are afraid the United States is heading down the same doomed path. Is that indeed a danger, and what do Americans need to do to pull a U-turn back in the right direction?
Sirico: While I do not wish to overstate the crisis we as a nation and a culture are facing, it is, I believe, quite apparent things are seriously off-kilter. Nor is this an observation from one side of the political spectrum — it is a general sense people have. I think it is very difficult to be able to come to an objective assessment of a civilization’s decline when one has been formed in a culture and lives in it. Nonetheless, there are clear warning signs all over the place. How far along we are is difficult to tell. Lord Acton made an intriguing observation when he said that “Liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.”
My fear is that we do not realize how delicate that fruit is. If we think we can simply live off the achievements of the past without a deep and integrated appreciation of what made those achievements possible, it will be easy to lose them. As I am addressing this to you in an economic context (though there are other moral, esthetic and cultural indicators which impact the economic), I will simply observe that once we come to the point in a society where more and more people live off the redistributive capacity of government and the burden to support that redistribution falls on fewer and fewer producers, something untenable is occurring. Likewise, when one generation borrows what cannot be expected to be paid in the next generation, such a civilization is at a crossroads.