Market idolatry

  • October 10, 2008
{mosimage}The international financial crisis is no longer just about Wall Street — if it ever was. Today, increasingly, it is about Main Street and its residents, about people who are losing homes, jobs, pensions and savings.

In a way, the international economic system is a kind of Tower of Babel, built on its own internal logic, but a logic that essentially created a house of cards. It was built on an ever-expanding consumption of goods; when the production of wealth could not keep up with the need to feed mass consumption, developed nations simply turned to debt. When that tower of debt began to crumble as some of its weaker bricks gave way, the whole edifice began to tumble.
The tower was built, too, on a blind faith in the dogma of the "invisible hand of the market," which teaches that if each individual sought their own self-interest in economic matters, the sum of their actions would work for the benefit of all.

This dogma has driven the economic decisions of democratic governments in recent years. While some of their decisions have generated much wealth for many people, there is no doubt that the wealthy have benefited most. Moreover, the government deregulation which sought to give the "invisible hand" maximum freedom to create wealth has also promoted the very excesses of the market that proved to be its undoing.

Today governments around the world are scrambling to restore trust, the one element our economic experts say has fallen victim to the crisis, and the one thing these same experts say is needed most. But trust will not return with a few bailouts that will free up lenders to start lending again; only an economic system that can assure everyone it will curb those same excesses that led us to this fiasco will begin to rebuild trust.

One of the key missing ingredients in all the advice over how to solve the crisis is any recognition that the economy is not just the sum of individual actions. It is a system that exists to serve all society and, as such, requires managing by elected governments whose duty is to serve the common good. As  our popes have said, economic goods have a social purpose beyond their private use. Pope John Paul, in his 1988 encyclical, Concern for the Social Order, reminds us of this in particular, calling for international governmental co-operation to ensure the markets serve people, and not the other way around.

Behind this teaching is recognition that the human person is not defined by his/her economic decisions, but by the broader dimensions of health, relationship to others and relationship with the transcendent. Our economic system refuses to recognize our greater reality, enslaving us to greed in the process and leaving us to idolize the market. This autumn, the idols have shown us how truly false they are.

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