NewsBusters Interview: Robert Sirico, Author of 'Defending The Free Market'

Perhaps the most common justification for government intrusion into people's lives and into the economy at large is the notion that "doing something" is better than preserving limited government. 

The usual rejoinder from the right is that capitalism has done more to alleviate poverty and is therefore a more efficient way of helping raise living standards than socialism or its related ideologies. While that answer has the advantage of being true, it is often unpersuasive for those looking for an answer to a moral question. That is the task at hand for Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and center-right thinker in his excellent new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.

I spoke with Sirico in an extended interview, the transcript of which is below. (Audio coming later today.) We talk about several topics including how left-wing political ideology has made its way into many religious congregations and also disagreements on the right as to whether or not religious belief is required to be a conservative.

We also talked about how the liberal secular media have marginalized not only religious conservatives but even religious liberals, many of whom, according to Sirico, are afraid to express their full faith out of fear of being mocked by their ideological comrades.

Sirico's perspective is an important one because so often, liberals are wont to use moral arguments as a means of justifying economic or social beliefs which have proven historically to be disastrous. Such an effort is doomed to failure because justice is something that can be best achieved through individuals exercising self-control rather than an all-powerful government imposing its will upon them.

"What I think is necessary is to have a greater moral authority in society that being a form of constraint that is interior to the person as opposed to an increase in power to society, that being a constraint that is external to the person," Sirico says.

Contrary to what some liberals may think, Sirico is not envisioning a massive theocratic bureaucracy looming above the secular state. Far from it. Instead, he is referring to the naturally arising consensus that appears in any market over time. In fact, it is the expansion of government which usually prevents such private moral impulses from coalescing the way they naturally would.

If you're interested in more about Sirico's book, click here to read the first chapter for free. You can also purchase it in print or electronic copy.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Before we get further into the details, why don’t you describe a little bit for us, if you were to describe it for us in one paragraph or two what the overall contention is of the book.

ROBERT SIRICO: The overall contention of the book is that the free economy is worthy of a moral defense. Not just a utilitarian defense, the utilitarian case for the free market, that it functions better, that it produces more, that it’s a more efficient mechanism for prosperity, I think has been made manifest, if not before,  over the last two decades with the collapse of real socialism in Europe. What I’m trying to bring to the discussion is a meditation if you will, on the nature of the human person and the way in which that nature is made manifest in the economy. That’s kind of the big bumper sticker of the summation of the book.

SHEFFIELD: With respect to the idea of that capitalism or a free market is more adequate to the tasks of alleviating various negative social conditions such as poverty or disease  very often when one hears from liberals on those two topics that if these injustices exist, government is the best means of attempting to resolve those issues. And that to simply let things be or laissez-faire, is not only the wrong economic choice but is also morally deficient. What is your immediate response to that?

SIRICO: Well let’s come back to the first part of that, that the state of affairs exists where there is poverty or misery and that the government is up to the task. So my first question is why does such misery exist? Why are people poor? Why is there dislocation and injustice in the world? That could take us in a million different directions but I think it's safe to say that there is something flawed in the human character, that we don’t automatically help people, that we don’t provide for those who are in need, that we are selfish. All of those things are kind of what the Left would say.

And my response to that is to say, well is that something that is just extent in a free economy where people are free to act and to choose what they want to buy and sell and invest in or is that just a human trait? And if it’s a human trait then isn’t it reasonable to conclude that it’s more risky to place the means of coercion in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats who have no direct and immediate accountability to get an election going or to get a bill passed takes quite a while.

To put it in theological terms, the original sin that you’re worried about expressing itself in a free society is on stilts in a command and control economy.  That’s the first part of the question you raised. The second part, has to do with the contention that what I’m arguing for if you want to use the term laissez-faire. I’m not arguing for a society that is uncontrolled and unplanned.

The fact that I don’t believe the government should be controlling it or planning it, doesn’t mean that I think it should be unplanned. I think there should be constraints on the government and effective constraints. To buy and sell anything is not desirable; the question is how do we restrict that buying and selling. I think there are a variety of ways of doing it, aside from the obvious thing that human beings shouldn’t be bought and sold you know things like that. I think when we have competition that is a form of constraining given markets, it’s a barrier. I think also the culture in which a society is placed, you’re not going to sell a lot of bacon in the middle of Jerusalem and that’s because there’s a culture there and not only because it might be against the law but because it would be offensive to the people. To put it a different way, you’re not going to sell a lot of heterosexual pornography on Castro Street in San Francisco, because there’s a culture there that’s not interested in that market.

To put it in a traditional moral setting: if we can form people to the point of an ethical consensus, which I think to a very great extent we had at certain points in American history. I think you do in that sense control the market but you control it internally rather than externally is the distinction that Robert Nesbitt makes in one of his books about the distinction between power and authority. What I think is necessary is to have a greater moral authority in society that being a form of constraint that is interior to the person as opposed to an increase in power to society, that being a constraint that is external to the person.

SHEFFIELD: What would be your response to if somebody said, well the society may or may not operate on those principles but a government that is empowered would be more efficient in the sense that if  it’s supposed to look out for the well-being of individuals. That’s often what you hear liberals saying, that that is the government objective whereas businesses are looking out for themselves only.

SIRICO: Businesses are not the only entity in society; it’s the fruit of business and if we’re talking the vulnerable, the sick and the indigent, then let’s just look historically over the whole sweep of history and see who invents the institutions to take care of vulnerable human life. The religious community has done it, the hospital is an invention of Christianity in the early middles ages. What we know today to be modern hospitals is the point I gave in the book and gives the references there.

The whole regard for the value of human life even in its most vulnerable stages is a virtuous concern and while a business does not attend to that, I think religious institutions have a vested interest in that and they draw their sentiments from business. So this by the way underscores the egregiousness of government takeover or mandates against religious institutions or performing the traditional charitable works that we invented in the first place. I’m not saying in this book that all we need is a free society. I’m saying we need a free and virtuous society. My point is you stand a greater chance of creating a culture predicated on virtue and mutual support of that society is free versus the statist approach. To go back to the original assumption of the question, when liberals say when there are poor people, we’ll act on their behalf. They don’t know what to do for the same reason that an economy that is controlled by the state episcopes knowledge, that it obscures that data that flows through prices.

The welfare state makes is impossible to know what real human needs exist. Because the motivation for creating such programs is a political motivation it’s a motivation based on constituencies and pressure groups. Whereas when the church or religious voluntary institutions act on behalf of the poor, they do so because they see the need, they know the need and they’re willing to put some flesh in the game. They actually give of themselves, the people who volunteer very often, they’re donors. The people who are concerned for people in foreign countries actually leave their homes and sometimes risk their wellbeing and safety to take care of the poor. Now this is generally not a secular impulse, this is generally a religious impulse.

SHEFFIELD: On that line of thought, one of the things you mention is that if one looks at the world in darkness, where you see countries that are more government-directed, those countries do not have light, nearly as much light as more autonomous or free market countries. Certainly the case definitely has been made by many people that allowing a free market is the best way to allow people to move upward. I guess you were saying religion and individual virtue provides a way for providing a safety net. Is that a correct characterization?

SIRICO: Yes I think generally that’s a fair approach, without disregarding the many temptations and flaws that are in the way. I agree there are risks; a free market society entails a lot of risks. But I would rather have those risks than the risks of handing all of that power over to the state.

SHEFFIELD:  So would you say that then in your opinion, an expansion of government or as a government expands, the role in public life or public square for religion must necessarily attenuate?

SIRICO: Yes, in fact you almost quoted Alexis De Tocqueville in Democracy in America. He said virtually the same thing you just said in almost the same words. I don’t know if you did that consciously. As the moral tie contracts, let me see how does it go as a political tie expands the moral tie contracts or the reverse. So what you have is the political sphere taking over more and more of the things that religious sensibility used to take care of.

SHEFFIELD: And I guess not necessarily an institutional insinuation being the only problem, in other words, and you can correct me if I’m misstating you here the idea that as the individuals, as the emphasis or morality of individuals declines with regard to one must work hard in order to please God, or to not be a sloth. That if that value becomes de-emphasized then there is not as much of an initiative or is no source for many individuals to replace that?

SIRICO: Yes, for instance if we live in a society that tells us that we have a generous welfare state and they’re going to take care of people for us, we are less inclined to use our limited resources to help people. Because they figure, well that’s being done; I’m paying for that already in my taxes. And we see this with the victims of the tsunami. It was reported and extolled by the liberals that small countries, one of the small Scandinavian countries had given more as a percentage of their GDP to the victims than the United States had given as their GDP. And everyone was aghast how ungenerous we are. What they never took into consideration was that the American public voluntarily gave multiples more than all of Europe combined. Even in their state giving and that was just private donations. I think that says a great deal about what we’re talking about here.

SHEFFIELD: All that being said, I think it would be fair to say that the notions of liberation theology seem to have gained quite a bit of currency within many religious quarters, certainly within Catholicism. Why do you suppose that is?

SIRICO: Well it’s a trajectory of thinking, I mean liberation theology is a particularly unique thing from the late 60’s to roughly the late 80’s.

SHEFFIELD: And I’m not singling that out particularly, you know the social gospel…

SIRICO: If you go back to the social gospel, you go back to the middle ages where you had radical Franciscans who wanted to call for the abolition of private property and all that. I think when people don’t understand how a market economy functions; they don’t understand the role of private property or the role of profits in coordinating resources and economic productivity. And yet at the same time they see human need, there’s a rage.

So there’s a concern and I think it’s a moral concern, it’s just they’re directing it in the wrong direction. It’s like the Wall Street occupiers; they’re outraged that bankers come away with exorbitant profits, what they see as exorbitant profits, at the same time that they get bailouts and they’re down on Wall Street protesting. Well they’re on the wrong street; they need to be in Washington DC. Because who gave them those subsidies, it was politicians. People get angry at lobbyist and see that as a perversion of the American system of law and justice but they never ask themselves why do lobbyist go to politicians? Lobbyist don’t come to me and ask me for help because I can’t do anything for them. They go to politicians because of the presumption that the government controls everything. And so that’s where they go, that’s where the money is.

SHEFFIELD: And that point has been made very well by my friend Tim Carney, who has written extensively on the role of lobbying. So your contention, going back to the question is that these notions of social justice being conflated with moral justice or even the idea that social justice should even exist, or whatever it is.

SIRICO: No, that’s not quite what I’m saying. I do think that there is a legitimate understanding of social justice; I just don’t think its socialist justice. Social justice is aiming towards a society that takes care of people and insures that people get their due, both on an individual level which is justice and then within society itself. But that does not call for the role of government being the resource of first resort. I’m not an anarchist, I do believe in law, I do believe in government. But I think that for us to achieve the best that society can offer us that it has to be severely limited for the reasons that I said about intelligence and productivity and morality.

SHEFFIELD: So I guess the misbegotten notions that you’re writing against, they’re proceeding from an ignorance of how the free market operates?

SIRICO: And also a misunderstanding of anthropology and an understanding of who man is. Are we just cogs that can be orchestrated in the wheel or are we each unique, unrepeatable creative beings that can transcend our circumstances and even our physicality? That’s my view of anthropology, that’s how I see human beings. I have a part of the book that I call humanaphobia, this fear of populations, and this fear of human beings. I can understand this issue if your whole worldview is predicated as a zero sum economic perspective then if you add more people to the life raft then the raft is going to sink. I just don’t happen to think that the economy is static, I think it can be dynamic it can be creative so that human beings contribute. They’re not just mouths that consume, they’re minds that produce.

SHEFFIELD: I’m assuming you see the media as being very influential in terms of perpetuating these false notions?

SIRICO: I think the media is also combating those notions right? We’re having a good conversation, this is a form of media. I’m glad the market has opened up so much more media. If you mean the elite media yes.

SHEFFIELD: Yes, that is what I’m referring to.

SIRICO:  Somebody once called it the opinion cartel, they’re going to tell us what acceptable and what to believe. You know the New York Times and the 3 big sisters there [broadcast television networks].

SHEFFIELD: On that angle it does seem that the elite media seem to have a very systemic bias against people who are of faith and even to a large degree people who may agree with their political orientation. It’s pretty rare to see someone like an E.J. Dionne, who is a practicing and believing Catholic and he is devout. But there seem to be very few E.J. Dionnes within the elite media and certainly hardly any conservative religious people in the upper echelons, why is that?

SIRICO: None who speak about their religion as openly. Dionne also kind of curtails, I don’t know what he thinks about for instance about some of the social questions. But he certainly is not opposing the line of NPR or the New York Times or the Washington Post on any of these questions. You have a few examples, there’s certainly very good devout traditionally conservative people in the media, but they’re not known for that. You very often find out about that almost in a backdoor sort of way.

SHEFFIELD: And why do you suppose that is?

SIRICO: Well I think that who people associate with and who you’re comfortable associating with is part of it certainly. I think there is also just the nature of journalism is to be skeptical. You don’t accept things on the surface, you dig underneath the surface and I think it’s a mistake that some journalists make. Maybe when they’re going in there, maybe they’re predisposition is that everything is to be held suspect, that you don’t believe anything definitively.

I think this really gets us to the core of what a lot of the concern is about religious people. It’s the claim to truth that mentality, the ethical relativism that is pervasive in the media causes people to think that anyone who claims to know something about truth is automatically a theocrat or referred to as Christian Taliban type folks. I think a lot of that goes into play.

SHEFFIELD: That attitude is remarkably fascinating to me because John Maynard Keynes has famously theorized that we’re all slaves of some dead economist somewhere. I think more accurately that we’re all slaves of some dead theologian somewhere including the most militant secular leftist.

SIRICO: The other fascinating thing on this topic that I find and NPR is a very good example of it because they are so serenely sure of their position that when you disagree with them on the kind of core things, it’s not like it’s a disagreement, it’s like well it just doesn’t exist, and of course it’s this way. I honestly don’t think they see their own prejudice. You try to get them to do it and they kind of slip around it.

You’d think that these skeptical people who are always asking questions would ask themselves, why are there no Republicans around me? Why are there no conservatives around me? Why are there people who have different views of morality? Why is it all just kind of the Unitarian church and prayer, well maybe not prayer, that I surround myself with?

SHEFFIELD: I think a lot of that is just a function of complete political ignorance. That they’re not aware of other ideologies so they themselves don’t know what they have is an ideology.

SIRICO: Exactly.

SHEFFIELD: And there was some interesting work, I believe it came out of George Mason a couple of months ago. It was a survey of individuals, divided into liberal and conservative. And they asked the liberals to tell them what the conservatives believed about certain things. And then they asked the conservatives to tell what liberals believed about certain things. And overwhelmingly the conservatives were far more educated and aware about what liberals…

SIRICO: Interesting. That doesn’t surprise me at all.

SHEFFIELD: And a lot of that is simply you have many individuals who are never exposed to conservative thought. They can live their entire life without ever coming into contact with one.

SIRICO: Right. I read the New York Times every day. I listen to National Public Radio every day. It’s a reference point for me and I guess I go through the exercise of responding to the assumptions. I think I’m a better person for the exercise.

SHEFFIELD: Just to shift into campaign type questions. It appears that the Obama campaign’s strategy is going to be to make a core attack on Mitt Romney and say that he represents ideas of the past and heartless capitalism and then they’ll also throw in that he’s a secret theocrat and whatever. In the past many Republicans and conservatives have had some difficulty trying to respond to such accusations, why do you suppose that is and what would you say to a conservative who might face similar attacks?

SIRICO: The attacks that there is secret theocrats or heartless?

SHEFFIELD: Well that they represent failed thinking that got us into this mess, as Obama frequently says.

SIRICO: On one hand there is a whole history of conservative big government approach and when liberals point to the kind of corporate capitalism, corporate welfare, I think they have a good point. I think that this is regrettable and that conservatives need to learn this lesson that we’re inconsistent with our own principles. But that it is the nature of capitalism or the free society to do that is a mistake.

When you compare the individual generosity of people you find then, Arthur Brooks [president of the American Enterprise Institute] who has done a great job documenting this, you find that conservatives tend to give more of themselves financially, time and even blood donations. I think it’s an illusion that they’re attempting to perpetuate and I think it’s an inaccurate one. I don’t think the policies are failed,  it’s kind of like [Christian philosopher G.K.] Chesterton said about Christianity it has been found and tried wanting, it hasn’t been tried.

SHEFFIELD: What about the idea of excess profits or the notion that there should be a cap on salaries? That’s often a common talking point for liberal media people which is of course delightfully ironic considering many of them are multimillionaires themselves.

SIRICO: Yes. They’re just experimenting again with this in France again if you can believe it. It goes back to the question of what is a profit. If you see profits as taking from a static pie, disproportionate parts of the share that you are due then I see the justice concern. If you however see the profit as a measure of accomplishment of what the firm has set out to do, that is to serve, to produce, to make available to people that which they deem subjectively is desirable for them and they’re willing to trade their money for. Then it is unethical to penalize people for accomplishing what they’re engaging in and achieving justly.

If they achieve that through the kind of government subsidies or corporate welfare mechanisms that I described earlier, then I understand that that’s an unjust thing. But I don’t think it’s the ceiling that we need to be focused on neither do I think it’s the gap between people who have a great deal and people who have less. The gap is not the moral concern, the ceiling is not the moral concern, I have no concern that Bill Gates has multiple more money available to him than Warren Buffett. The concern is before, how are the most economically vulnerable able to fare in society.

If you appeal to simply the fact that some people have more than others, then you’re appealing to envy. I think that’s, it’s one of the seven deadly sins. If you’re saying we’re concerned about the most vulnerable, how are they doing? Then I think the answer to that question is to look at the free economy and see what it’s done for people throughout the world. The most remarkable rise from destitution has taken place in the last 150- 200 years not because of government to government aide or charitable organizations, as important as they are. But through the globalizing of markets, people have access to jobs and I think that if your concern is really the poor instead of envy, I think that’s where you need to look.

SHEFFIELD:  Your book is an effort to provide a religious response to the free market. Some people have tried to provide a sort of secular conservative approach. I myself am an agnostic, it does seem so me that sometimes a lot of conservatives are not as appreciative of attempts delineate a secular teleology say for instance of rights.

SIRICO: While you were formulating your question you said that I attempt to give a religious defense of the market, I was going to interrupt you and say you know while my book does offer a religious theological defense it’s primarily a natural law defense. And I would think, if you’ve read the book you can tell me. Does it seem narrowly sectarian the argument that I’m  making or do you think that your teleology is expressed in this book? Leaving aside any biblical references or specifically theological arguments.

SHEFFIELD: I agree that you are going for a natural law orientation. But it seems many conservatives have an issue with where does natural law come from? And I’m not saying you do. Sometimes it seems that you have many people who are very insistent that anyone who does not believe that rights necessarily come from God, or that various moral imperatives are because of God…

SIRICO: I think that is a less sophisticated view of what a Christian can hold. Obviously I believe in God, I believe that the order of the universe is ordained by God and that’s why I believe natural law reflects the intentionality of the creator. But having said that, if you’re in the middle of this reality and you begin not with God, but with the world I think that’s a good place to begin. I’d like to talk you back to its origin but that’s a separate question.

SHEFFIELD: It is, yes.

SIRICO: I think there’s a whole lot we can agree on.

SHEFFIELD: I do agree with that and that’s why the natural law approach, I think conservatism can develop from that entirely independent of where one believes that law came from.

SIRICO: Right. And I’ll tell you; I’m not comfortable with a kind of simplistic approach that a number of people have where we’re going to establish what our national fiscal policy is based on this and that and the other scripture. I don’t think the Bible is an economic textbook or scientific textbook. I think it speaks the truth but I don’t think it intended to speak everything. You know if you want to study geometry, go elsewhere. I think for some Christians coming to these questions is a new enterprise. I think it’s in need of maturation, the Catholic Church has been thinking about these questions for two thousand years. So I think we bring something of the tradition with us.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I would agree with that. My personal perspective is that one’s teleological beliefs can be completely divorced from--why you believe what you believe isn’t necessarily important to what you believe in terms of operating within a political society.

SIRICO: At some point it would be.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah it can be.

SIRICO: To construct a free society I don’t think it necessarily has to come up at every turn. I don’t want to let it go philosophically because I think those are important questions.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I guess I’m raising because to a degree there definitely is a tension between people who..they’re not content to let people believe what they wish even if they agree with them on everything in terms of politics.

SIRICO: No it’s true. Christians like to corner people, new converts. They have this great zeal that is off-putting. Clare Booth Luce who is the writer and was a congresswoman and was eventually appointed the United States Ambassador to Italy. And a new convert to the Catholic Church was in an audience with Pope John Paul XXIII and she was so exuberant about her Catholic faith as she was talking to John XXII, finally the pope stopped her and said “Yes, Yes Ms. Luce I understand but I am already a Catholic.” It’s true people get zealous but you find this in anything right?

SHEFFIELD: Yes. And I was going to say similar attitudes exists among people who are secular oriented in that people who have a secular orientation don’t think that because there are people who have a religious belief in the free market, you know that they believe in it for religious reasons, that they must not therefore be associated with that sort of opinion.

SIRICO: Right. No I think we need to be much more ecumenical in our conversations with each other. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I definitely would agree with that. Just one final question, I appreciate you joining me today. You write several times about the word “greed.” You make a distinction which I think many liberals do not appreciate or do not even contemplate, in terms of what that means.

SIRICO: The root of the word greed is desire and our common use of the word greed we mean by that a disordered desire. So it’s out of proportion to other desires and things that are disproportionate can be destructive. I think that is the case with greed, that it is intrinsic to the market, a moment’s reflection tells you that it’s not because you can be as poor as anything and be greedy.

You may be more materialistic precisely because you don’t have a lot of stuff. Beyond that I think the other thing that people forget about greed is that it’s not tied to material things. One can have an inordinate desire for status, for reputation, for prestige, so that greed is not the unique creature of a market society. When we see it in a broader context, we understand it better. The argument of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street becomes less cogent, less telling, greed is not good. The problem is that because it can infect the human heart, including the hearts of politicians and bureaucrats. You end up getting more socialized greed in state dominated economies.

SHEFFIELD: Expand on that a little bit.

SIRICO: Well, what I mean is if you run into a greedy politician and he controls the political process or a bureaucrat who doesn’t even need to control a lot, he just controls his ability to give you the license to build or export or whatever it happens to be. That greed in that heart it can’t even be countered, whereas at least in a market it can be competed with. Remember that in the market, even if a person is greedy which is not good, none the less in a free market that greed is subordinated to the consumer. So that if I want to get rich producing “X” product, I have to produce it well, effectively with quality and at the price and the packaging and the color that the consumer wants, because the consumer is the one who determines all those things, not the greedy capitalists. It’s interesting to see how the market subordinates even greed. Again, that does not exonerate the person who is greedy from a moral perspective, but at least it puts their greed to some social use.

SHEFFIELD: I think you would draw the distinction that what many liberals might say is greed is just the pursuit of self-interest.

SIRICO: Yes. The desire to live better, surely liberals are not exempt from that. I mean, don’t we want that for our children, don’t we want that for the poor?

SHEFFIELD: Given the number of millionaire Hollywood liberals there are out there, they certainly are--

SIRICO: I once told a friend of mine, the thing I love most about limousine liberals is not just their limousines it’s their swimming pools.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, I appreciate you joining us today.

SIRICO: Thank you so much. Really good to talk to you.

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