(Link to Part 9)
The Practical Need for Benevolence
So far we’ve seen how important markets are to a thriving society. They provide the real-time information feedback loop that matches wants and needs with supply. Self-interested people (who may or may not be selfish) make bids for goods and services. Businesses compete to be the best at meeting their demands. Markets integrate people into an economic community of win-win transactions. Economic production and exchange, even in the Old Testament biblical context, are integral elements to the idea of stewardship of God’s resources. Markets enhance these qualities.
We’ve also observed that markets simply don’t operate with pristine perfection. Market transactions sometimes have an impact (sometimes quite negative) on people who were not a party to the transaction. Complex economies frequently lead to situations where buyers or sellers are at a relative information disadvantage to the other party in the transaction. Since markets function best where people are reasonably well informed and they have high expectations that their property rights will be respected by government and others, these issues represent serious challenges. It is not possible to talk about a truly “free market” without a strong juridical framework that will referee and regulate these problems.
Furthermore, as Christians, we have to acknowledge that whenever fallen finite people act on what they perceive to be in their best interest, the frequently err. Erroneous decisions are also processed into the market feedback loop. Economic outcomes will reflect these values. A frequent inclination is to propose government solutions that will “even out” the bad market outcomes. But this inclination frequently fails to account for the fact that governments are made up of the same fallen finite people trying to manage incomprehensibly complex and dynamic markets with insufficient information using a process that is oriented toward compromise positions between power brokers. It often doesn’t result in the best “common good” either. Our real choice is between fallen finite people with decentralized power participating in a markets that efficiently produce good and bad, or fallen finite people with centralized coercive power who answer to political (not economic or ethical) pressures. In short, perfect outcomes are not possible.
What is challenging is that we believe human beings have inestimable value beyond their economic capacities. We’re unwilling to leave people completely at the mercy economic outcomes. We realize that some of us occasionally make imprudent decisions. Some us are harmed by circumstances that are beyond our control. Others of us may be (temporarily or permanently) without the physical or mental capacities needed to produce something for economic exchange. We are morally compelled to devote resources to nurture fundamental capacities in those needing nurture. We are compelled to aid those who can’t participate in economic activity at all. The caregivers in both cases frequently need our economic support as well. So how will we provide this care?
And here is a related question: Where does someone learn to practice benevolence and internalize benevolence as a virtue? If we are nothing but a society of individuals engaging each other purely as parties to market transactions, then where will we learn to include others in our consideration of what is truly in our self-interest? Where will we learn the virtues of love and compassion that motivates us to devote a portion of our resources toward those who are in hardship or are without the capacities to participate in the economy? I want to suggest that the answer is in small benevolence oriented communes. You might call them families.