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limits to the free market

The essence of humaneness is limits which themselves reflect the hierarchy of enduring values. Humaneness in public affairs is characterized by the recognition and application of proportion and balance to the various needs of mankind. Often, though, decisions are made on the basis of a single principle adhered to regardless of other principles. In this absolutized and abstracted usage, such a principle, though good in itself, becomes a sieve through which all the rest of reality is strained. It is touted as the workable solution for all sorts of social ills and is distorted into an ideology of dogmatic pragmatism. This resolves itself into the overwrought alternatives of the political left and right: either more government or more markets. The result is usually a compromising mixture as unbecoming to either side as it is unjust to the nature of the problems and the people to which these “principles” are applied.

Wilhelm Roepke’s concern for providing people with a deeply satisfying way of life led him to reject both of these alternatives as inadequate and to insist there is a “third way” which is both more realistic and more humane. Roepke recognized the market is not autonomous but needs an extra-market, social framework to exist and function. This recognition gives his work a simple, common-sense quality that is as appealing as it is deceptive: in an age of ideology it is neither simple nor quite so common.

Perhaps the best way to explain the humaneness of Roepke’s approach to social issues is to use the analogy he himself employed. We do not expect the liver to pump blood or interfere with the function of the heart. Each organ has its proper place and purpose. Similarly, in the social body, the economic, governmental and familial organs, etc., all have specific but limited functions. Good health requires respect for all of them, for considerations to be taken as a whole. It would be absurd to focus on just one organ to the detriment of others.

In the same way it is silly for some on the political right to become obsessed with the market to the exclusion of other needs, to solve all problems by looking at them in terms of what the market can do instead of what is proper to the subject matter’s own purpose and nature. It would be like trying to solve a heart problem by constantly thinking in terms of what extended function the liver could be made to perform. It would hardly constitute good health to cure the obesity of the national government by prescribing an anorexic “diet.”

Instead, a conservative social philosophy must be rooted in the purpose and nature, and thus also the limits, of the market. A free market is intended to provide people with the satisfaction of their legitimate demands such as the basic ones of food, clothing and shelter as well as a host of other items. But it cannot serve as its own foundation; it is not self-sufficient; it is not a source of community; and it is not a cure for other ills.

There are, in fact, three noteworthy limits to the free market.

First, there are moral limits which declare that certain things be not treated as market transactions in any economy pretending to be humane. These include the familiar cases of prostitution, pornography, and drugs.

The second limit is natural in the sense that the traditional legal distinctions are made for ownership or use of natural resources. Some environmental goods are “things of the community” (res communis) and others are things that are private. Water and air are two common examples of resources taken to belong to the community as they exist in their natural state. The failure to respect these distinctions has contributed to numerous problems including the all-too-familiar ones of environmental pollution.

The third limit is social and involves the cumulative and collective effect of individual decisions. Where results of individual micro-decisions are favorable overall, the market is acting at its best. But there are cases where the collective results of individual decisions are unfavorable even from the point of view of economic efficiency and the individuals who helped bring these results about. What’s true for the part is not necessarily true for the whole. The superstition of infinite material growth illustrates the problem: because some material growth has been good, unlimited growth is also thought good. Recognition of an optimum derived from the inherent order and structure of the world, beyond which it is not wise to go, is implicitly denied.

Of course, the laissez-fairist will raise objections to these examples based on what historically came to be called the “automatic harmony of interests” and from which one derives an exaggerated and imbalanced desire to extend the domain of private choice.

The first limit, for example, will be rejected on the assertion that society is better off to legalize drugs since this will drive down costs and reduce violent crime by the introduction of competition. Better health can be introduced by legalizing prostitution and pornography is a purely private concern with no socially harmful consequences.

The second limit will be attacked by an appeal to property rights and the concept of privatization. With increasing concerns of pollution, water, air, and other traditional res communis should be made private property as much as possible. Self-interest tamed by competition will reconcile all conflicts if property rights are well-defined and if government is otherwise too weak to interfere in these markets.

The third limit is rejected because of a view of man frothy with what Richard Weaver describes as “hysterical optimism. ” Generally, what people want is good and what is good for the individual is always, or nearly so, good for the community in a democratic-market system. Therefore, collective results faithfully represent individual preferences. Indeed, if only government or all the rest of society would just behave according to these laissez-faire views, the market would work perfectly. (It is similar to the Communist argument that if the rest of the world were reconstructed according to their notions, then communism would work, too.)

But history and an unmasking of motives suffice to show the chronic anemia of these objections. With regard to the first limit, the intellectual and empirical gymnastics behind such objections pale in the light of the broad sweep of Western experience and religious insight that have traditionally sanctioned social and legal obstacles to hinder the practice of immorality. Only someone addicted to the narrow habit of techno-scientific rationalism could throw out such testimony in response to slogans about freedom and choice.

One suspects also some sophistry in that this rejection merely reflects a latent nihilism whose adherents seek to promote materialism and a subtle endorsement of immoral living. Their real “belief” is that there is nothing to believe in: no enduring values, no permanent things, no absolute truths (except, of course, the validity of their own appetites). As a result, “anything goes” in the market. Indeed, they seem bent on reversing Dostoyevsky’s dictum to prove that a society where anything is permitted is one without God. With the memorials of moral relativism inundating us, it becomes increasingly clear that the denial of truth is the greatest inhumanity.

Roepke, too, reminds us that the Weimar Republic boasted it had the freest constitution in the world. But the arrogant disregard of moral limits as well as the political incompetence of this democratic, market-based country dedicated to total freedom ended instead in totalitarianism.

With regard to the second limit, history also should tame those who would blame all market failures merely on the lack of well-defined property rights. One cannot explain all forms and degrees of inhumane abuse and rapacity (such as bribery, thievery, intimidation and murder which accompanied much of the development of America’s natural resources) in this manner. There can be no property rights which require the selfish to respect property rights. That respect must derive from a superior, antecedent, outside source.

Finally, social limits arising from the structure of the world and the nature of man ought to have taught us to limit material acquisitiveness. Beyond a wholesome level, absolute increases in levels of consumption are detrimental to the human spirit. Man also needs to acquire a secure position and identity in society and these “social goods” cannot be produced en masse. Endless material change alters living patterns that frustrate people’s ability to secure these “social goods.” The resulting instability and insecurity weakens community integration which requires the contemplation and practice of higher values. But like the drug addict who, feeling worse after his “trip”, insists he must have more next time, advocates of endless materialism demand more of the same to compensate for the bad consequences of earlier excessive growth – and do so in the name of individual freedom and choice. And so the debilitating treadmill of keeping up with the Joneses spirals downward prompted by a national policy enshrining slavery to appetite and ensured by the force of competition. Clearly, the collective results of narrow, individual market decisions do not always reflect the desiderata of a fuller humanity. The deeper needs of human nature, understood and protected through the funded wisdom of the ages, and immediate desire, do not always harmonize.

Ultimately, no social policy is humane and no society can long endure, which attempts to subject everything to the market and so give unlimited freedom to human inclination. The humane values of character, honour, and chivalry (even in business), as well as a basic respect for property rights, must come before rights and choice, not after. They precede entrance into the market; they are not the products of the market.

It is Roepke’s merit that he understood these facts. By not deifying the market, he was able to articulate a vision in which a free but also truly humane economy has its proper place in the full hierarchy of human goods. It is the task of this paper to present further his vision, to explain and defend its principles and apply them to important national issues. In the next issue an overview of Roepke’s diagnosis and therapy for our present ills will be given.

Books referenced in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[This essay appeared in The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy by Ralph Ancil, originally published by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute, all rights reserved. Read the series introductory essay here.]

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