Why not socialism?
A right use of freedom has tended to encourage human dignity, creativity and flourishing.
But why should we care about those things? Why value human creativity? Why even believe that human beings possess dignity and rights?
The economic system I espouse assumes, rather than defends, the value of all these things — something easy to miss because most of us share these sentiments.
The religious foundation with which I was imbued as a child, and to which I returned after a spell in the wilderness of liberal activism in the 1970s, eventually allowed me to reach a place where I finally could speak the words of St. Augustine from my own heart: “Sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova, sero te amavi” — Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you.
I came once again to know that there was a God and that he was personal. I knew that the world was formed by his design and infused with his purpose and that he fashioned the human race in his likeness, etching into us his own nature. And I knew that he wanted to be known by this world and that he had revealed himself in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, who established a church on the earth to carry forth this message.
It wasn’t that the Catholic Church I grew up in had officially endorsed the prudential judgments of the free market thinkers I had come to embrace. The Catholic Church does not — and never has — “taught economics.”
Rather, its focus is on the principles that ought to inform how we think about and act in economic life. But the Catholic faith, as I began to dust it off and rediscover it, did provide solid reasons for valuing many of the things these free market thinkers sought to sustain and encourage.
We are made in the image of a Creator to be creative (like him). The God we see operative in the first pages of the Bible is not a passive entity. He engages, indeed engenders, the world. And at the summit of this creation are the beings created in his very likeness and image: the human family.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the first words spoken to man and woman constitute a calling to a similar creativity: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”
My radical friends and I back in 1970s California spoke often of justice. But surely it is not merely justice that any of us seek in society or in our lives. Justice — treating people as they deserve to be treated — is a fundamental civil and moral requirement. But by itself, it is a meager necessity.
What we really want is a society that is just, yes, but also one that is suffused with charity and mercy — virtues that no legislature can produce or enact, virtues that can raise up armies of men and women who are prepared to go out and tend the vulnerable at great personal sacrifice.
After all, at the Last Judgment, when each of us will stand before God, I doubt any of us is going to be demanding justice. I, for one, will plead for mercy.
If justice and mercy are to thrive in our society, I understand now we need to protect the institutions of liberty — “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” as the Victorian statesman and historian Lord Acton called it. We must work strenuously to safeguard the liberty that our security and prosperity depend on.
What happens when we have our prosperity but lose our meaning? What happens when we lose a sense of ourselves as transcendent beings? What happens when we are no longer able or inclined to defend the institutions and ideas that have enabled our prosperity and still guarantee our freedom?
Karl Marx was wrong. Civilizations are not directed by any fatalistic process of dialectical materialism. God is in his heaven, and free men still walk upon the earth. Class envy and class warfare can, have and will again give way to class encounter and cooperative creativity within a competitive marketplace.
• The Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This essay is excerpted from “Defending the Free Market” (Regnery Publishing Group, 2012).