From “The Market as God” to “People, Planet, & Profit”

From “The Market as God” to “People, Planet, & Profit” March 10, 2017


(This post is a follow-up to my previous post on “The Market as God”:  What Happens with a Theologian Starts Reading the Business Section?)

From a historical perspective, the late eighteenth-century philosopher Adam Smith could be considered the patron saint of free market religion. The theologian Harvey Cox jokes that perhaps we should call him “St. Adam of Glasgow” (145). Smith taught that the best way to create a good society is for every person to act selfishly to advance their self-interest (145). Counter-intuitively, Smith tell us, if we are all individually selfish, more good will be created overall for everyone because, looking back, it will seem to us as if that self-interested individual were “led by an invisible hand.” (Does an “invisible hand” sound a lot like a theological claim about God to anyone else?!) Moreover, Smith assures his adherents that, “By pursuing [one’s] own interest [one] frequently promotes that of the society more efficiently than when [one] really intends to promote it” (Gustafson 40).

Here is the point where being a religious progressive can be helpful. Theological liberals helped paved in the way in saying that it is insufficient to say that orthodox religious claims must be believed because of hierarchy or tradition. Instead, our liberal religious forebears insisted that reason and experience are equally (or more) legitimate criteria of authority. We can apply those same approaches to faith claims made about the Market as God.

The truth is, we have tried faith in an unregulated free market, and we have seen repeated evidence of the devastation it can wreak:

The Mortgage and Housing Bubble and Crash 2004-2009

The U.S. Bubble in Over-the-Counter Stocks 1995-2000

The Asian Stock and Real Estate Bubble 1992-1997

The U.S. Savings and Loan Crisis of the Late 1980s

The Stock Market Crash of 1929

The Mississippi Bubble of 1720

The South Sea Bubble of 1720

The Dutch Tulip Bulb Debacle of 1636 (42)

Now, I don’t have time to go into the history of all of those financial crises, or even to try to explain credit default swaps and the collateralized debt obligation bubble behind our most recent crisis (45-46). However, the best, clearest, and most interesting explanation I have seen is the excellent 2015 film The Big Short. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

I should also be clear that I am not advocating that we should shift from one extreme to the other, dissolve private property, and have state ownership of everything. Profit-motive is a powerful, productive force that we should continue to harness, but we need to do so responsibly. We need a balance somewhere between “Conscious Capitalism” (that is more aware of its shadow side and capacity to harm) and “Democratic Socialism” (which empowers people—not a totalitarian, fascistic socialism). But our world is currently in thrall to the extremes of a barely-regulated capitalism that profits through the exploitation of people and planet. And neither the 99% nor the climate can withstand much more abuse.

Here in the early twenty-first century, too much irrational faith in the “invisible hand” of the free market has created  an unhealthy wealth gap in our world: “the richest tenth of a percent of American households now control as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined—and the chasm widens every year” (Cox 103). There are, of course, people who have worked incredibly hard to move from “rags to riches” in our society, but an orthodox free market faith would have you believe that the “invisible hand” of the market has ensured that the only reason anyone is rich is that they worked hard—and the only reason someone is poor is that they are lazy. The opposite can just as often be true, especially in the case of inherited wealth—people who are “born on third base and think they hit a triple.”

By inviting you to see the ways that economics has co-opted the language of religion, my point has been that we need to pull back the curtain and reveal that far from being “God,” the engines of the economy are all-too-human, which means we can change them. In Cox’s words:

The Market system is not a part of nature. We as human beings constructed it and we can renovate, dismantle, or transform it if we want to. Laying hands on it might not make one widely popular but, unlike the Ark of the Covenant, it will not be punished by instant death. [Of course, it turns out that story isn’t true either!] The Market must be deprived of its sacred aura so we can think about it clearly. We do not need to take off our shoes or our hats when we enter its sanctuary. (256-257)

Our invitation is make our religion and our economics align with our deepest values and our true ultimate concerns—not false, idolatrous ones.

We must demand more than a single “bottom line” of profit, which exploits labor and disregards environmental costs as “externalities,” side effects which are not paid for. To use a traditional theological formulation, we need the Market to confess that it “has done things it ought not to have done” and “left undone things it ought to have done” (Cox 261). Instead of profit alone, we need a “triple bottom line” that accounts for people, planet, and profit. Profit is still a major part of the equation, but it must be balanced against the needs of people (human rights) and the longterm sustainability of life on this planet.

Currently, instead of a triple-bottom line, we have abominations—desolating sacrileges!—like the claim that, “Corporations are people” (Gustafson 89). And there is no guarantee that we will successfully transition to a more humane and green economy. However, the study of history tells us that predicting the future is a difficult game that is rarely successful. For example, if I were a contemporary of Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834), I might well have agreed with the rational argument of his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population that the demands of a growing human population would inevitably overcome the limited supply of Earth’s resources. But the Industrial Revolution proved Malthus’s “Iron Law of Population” to be wrong—at least in the short term. Previously unforeseen innovations created sufficient food to feed the growing number of our species, allowing our species to septuple to more than 7 billion people today. Of course, now the side effects of carbon dioxide emissions from that same Industrial Revolution and population explosion are causing global climate change on an unprecedented scale.

A techno-utopian today might tell us that, looking at the history of the economy,

in 1860 it was impossible to predict the sort of economic growth that would occur in the next century and a half. No one predicted electricity becoming as ubiquitous as it is. Air travel and space travel were imagined by very few. Automobiles, roads, television, radio, the discovery of microbes, recombinant DNA technologies, air conditioning, central heating, and a host of other inventions we now consider essential to life were not even imagined. The next 150 years could easily contain innovation of even greater magnitude. For example, what would happen if we could mimic photosynthesis or harness the energy of the sun in efficient ways? The implications to food production and energy…are quite staggering and could lead to Economic expansion of exponential proportions! (144)

That being said, even if economic expansion continues in unpredictable ways (of which there is no guarantee), there is also no guarantee that it will be fairly distributed. But the more conscious we are of the dynamics swirling around us—and the more equipped we are to debunk false claims—the more hope there is that we can do our part to build a world in which people, planet, and profit are kept in greater balance. Together, may we continue to seek “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice” not merely for some or only a few, but “for all.”

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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