- - Tuesday, August 21, 2012

By the Rev. Robert Sirico
Regnery, $27.95, 256 pages

As the presidential race centers on America’s economic woes, President Obama and many of his supporters depict capitalism as a system that allows greedy CEOs and Wall Street insiders to profit atthe expense of the common good. Increased government regulation is their proposed solution for checking corruption and standing up for the rights of the average American.

But do Americans really have to choose either exploitative capitalism or excessive government intrusion? In “Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy,” the Rev. Robert Sirico argues that popular rhetoric presents a false dichotomy between “the free market and the nanny state.”

Father Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, argues that economic liberty actually protects the underprivileged more effectively than bureaucratic solutions.

Despite its title, “Defending the Free Market” is anything but a Randian manifesto. Father Sirico argues that a stable, limited government plays an essential role in allowing human enterprise to flourish by aiding in the enforcement of just laws and the protection of its citizens’ basic rights, including the right to private property.

Though not an absolute right, the right to hold property provides people with the means to secure their livelihoods, a precondition for exercising and defending their civil and religious liberties. For example, many American religious institutions depend heavily on federal funding. The existence of many of those institutions is threatened by the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services Department mandate requiring them to pay for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception in violation of their religious beliefs.

Cultural attitudes about the role of government in the economy also play a significant role in the erosion of rights. “The fact that a seventh of the nation’s economy had already been placed under the control of the federal government by Obamacare — the fact that so many in our culture were comfortable with such a massive government intervention in the private sector — made it much easier for HHS to issue such a mandate,” Father Sirico writes.

Father Sirico attributes the flaws of America’s health care system primarily to inappropriate government intervention. The most egregious of these interventions is the tax code’s creation of the employer-based system that established a disconnect between the consumer of health care and the employer who purchases insurance, leading in turn to a lack of transparency and competition in health care markets.

One of the book’s highlights is its discussion of the role of free enterprise in alleviating global poverty. Drawing on a series of interviews with leaders and entrepreneurs in developing nations on the economic challenges they face — from unpredictable or unjust legal systems to the way in which Western aid often undermines local businesses and sustains corrupt governments — he argues that Western nations need to reject neocolonial assumptions in favor of solutions that “call on the capacities of the poor.”

Father Sirico is a former liberal political activist, a colleague of Jane Fonda’s and Tom Hayden’s and his book is part autobiographical. His economic conversion to market-based principles began in the same place his religious reversion began: a focus on the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of human flourishing.

But Father Sirico also carefully delineates between the teachings of the Catholic Church and his own prudential conclusions about the economic system that best supports that teaching. “The Catholic Church does not — and never has — ‘taught economics,’” he writes. Instead, the Catholic faith and its foundational moral teaching “provide solid reasons for valuing many of the things these free market thinkers sought to sustain and encourage.”

“Rightly understood, capitalism is the economic component of the natural order of liberty,” he says. Capitalism too often is equated with consumerism, which actually prevents capital formation, and “corporate-government cronyism masquerading as a free market.”

In a chapter devoted to dismantling the proposition that “greed is good,” Father Sirico argues that although successful entrepreneurship is motivated primarily by human creativity, a market economy channels even greed toward the common good by providing a useful product or service.

Father Sirico presents a passionate but qualified defense of capitalism. Markets offer richer opportunities for material and moral wealth than does a more collective system. But, ultimately, markets reflect the character of those who use them, and liberty is an authentic good only when properly ordered. “Liberty is indispensable to the flourishing of a virtuous society, and virtue is the indispensable glue to maintain and make sense of freedom, calling it to the higher end of truth,” he writes.

Only a return to traditional Judeo-Christian anthropology, with its strong emphasis on the human dignity of each individual, Father Sirico concludes, will equip our country to overcome the moral and economic malaise it faces.

All but the first of the book’s 10 chapters address a common misconception of or objection to capitalism, followed first by a brief answer and then by a lengthier explanation. Devoid of supply-demand curves or ponderous statistical apparatus, the volume contains a useful list of suggestions for further reading appended to each chapter. In his new book, Father Sirico presents an eloquent case for the importance of economic liberty, addressing complex topics such as globalization and social welfare programs with admirable attention to first principles. In an election year in which the two candidates represent starkly different economic paths, “Defending the Free Market” makes a critical contribution to public discourse.

Claire Cousino, a former Commentary intern, writes from Grand Rapids, Mich.

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