Competition: The Good, the Bad, and the Capitalist

Competition: The Good, the Bad, and the Capitalist October 19, 2011

A very common argument used to defend a purely capitalistic system, one free from regulations, is to suggest that this provides the means for competition, and competition is needed in order for society to improve itself. Competition provides the incentive for innovation, and without innovation, society would stagnate and we would end up in an ever-worsening condition as we try to hold on to the past which cannot last. Therefore, the best way forward is to promote capitalism, and despite all its defects, capitalism in the long run will lead to better living conditions for everyone. The competitive nature of capitalism proves the truth of capitalism.

There are many things wrong with this line of reasoning.


On the one hand, it is consequentialist. Its justification is one which says the ends justify the means. We want a given end (innovation), and since capitalism provides for that end, all is good. Anyone who has studied basic moral theory can delineate what is wrong with this kind of justification. While we can look into this issue further, we need first to look at a different concern, one which is not always explored when dealing with this topic: equivocation.  The problem with this argument is it equivocates way too much. It suggests one end is what is wanted, when a real different end is in reality, what is being sought (money, wealth, pride, not innovation). It hides its real desired end under the guise of a good, and thereby, is dishonest with its real motive and intent.

This argument also suggests that there is only one way competition can exist in society: capitalism. We are being told that without capitalism, there would be no room for competition. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of competition. There are many ways one can compete, many reasons for competition; the reward does not have to be a monetary reward for one to compete – indeed, the equivocation being given (money/innovation) points to this fact – innovation is something which is good, something which we all want, and thus, even without a capitalistic reason, people will have the innate desire to innovate. We have an inherent desire to know, to do good, to create – this is not given to us from capitalism, but rather, it is exploited by capitalism. Indeed, the justification we have for capitalism here shows us  that a good can be perverted, and used for a lesser good, leading to all kinds of ill-effects (sin) as a result.

St. Isidore of Seville suggests that the origin of the words for competition in Greek comes from the crowd in which they were had; this suggests that there is, in a way, competition when there is any kind of gathering of people.[1] Thus, when we have a group of people, competition is natural.  He delineated a few different kinds of competition:

The types of competitions were: greatness of strength, swiftness in running, skill at archery, endurance in standing still, movement in marching to lyre or pipes, and also competitions over good character, beauty, singing, and further, over skill in land war and naval battle, and contests about withstanding torments. [2]

As can be seen from this list, competition is often connected to sporting contests. Many people play sports without any monetary gain from it whatsoever. The fun of the game is enough to justify the competition. Victory at the end of the game is also a reward, one which does not have to have any monetary association with it.  However, we don’t have to focus on sports to see the value of competition and to see competition doesn’t have to have a monetary goal in order for people to engage it. Competition can be over some noble goal, where people encourage each other and strive to better each other on some positive virtue or in the creation of some positive good.  If the competition is to be the best overall person one can be, the competition will transcend monetary rewards – for the one who pursues virtue will counteract the vice of avarice in their life. If one looks to be beautiful, the award is the beauty itself. Competition, indeed, for most people, at most occasions, does not have a monetary element. Only in a society which has given in to the dictates of avarice, which sees everything reduced to a monetary value, does competition imply monetary concerns.  The problem with capitalism is this reductionist view of the world – it is not just materialism, for materialism can see many goods in the world without economic concerns; it is the worst kind of economic materialism, and the true good is ignored for the sake of a lesser good. If money is the only good, having it, of course, proves you are good. But this does not prove money should be the only good, and that capitalism provides a means to get its own desired end does not prove capitalism is valid.  Now, this is not to say there is no value to money, and everyone needs to be poor; what it means, however, is money is at best a relative good and social and ethical concerns must be had when dealing with it instead of the other way around.

Competition, indeed, can be used to promote real goods and not just monetary ends. For example, competition can encourage religious worship, as long as competition is founded upon the good and not a lesser good for its foundation. Thus, Nicholas of Cusa even suggested positive rivalry where people seek to outdo each other in the pursuit of the good can and will have a positive effect in religion:

Where conformity of mode cannot be had, nations are entitled to their own devotions and ceremonies, provided faith and peace be maintained. Perhaps as a result of a certain diversity devotion will even be increased, since each nation will endeavor with zeal and diligence to make its own rite more splendid, in order that in this respect it may excel some other |nation| and thereby obtain greater merit with God and |greater| praise in the world.[3]

Now, a danger inherent with competition, a danger which must be avoided, is excessive pride. If one is constantly able to be superior to others in the competitions one engages, it is easy to let success get the best of you and lead you astray.  Pride always comes before a great fall, and one who ends up praising oneself for the qualities they have, must be weary, less they follow the example of Satan. Humility, even in competition, is necessary for one to attain one’s ultimate desire (eternal happiness). Competition must not be self-serving, but one which seeks the common good, to make sure everyone is built up and no one lags behind: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4 RSV).

When competition is seen only in the light of a capitalistic system, competition itself becomes disordered. Those involved with the competition will see little to no reason to combat the sin of pride, since they will find their goal – monetary rewards – is established, and indeed, such pride helps in the self-promotion needed to encourage people to follow you and give you the money you want. Secondly, however, the fact that the love of money being a root of evil, indeed, that the love of money can be said to be the root of all evil, is ignored; capitalism demands adoration of money, which of course, means the dark underbelly of capitalism will be evil, and the greater the adoration of the wealth, the greater the evil which will result.

It should not be surprising that a capitalistic society will be filled with moral rot: competition is for money, not virtue, and those who seek virtue often find themselves suffering the ill effects of the system. And the capitalist will say those who suffer such evil have only to blame themselves: they didn’t see fit to follow the system. In other words, again, the idol demands loyalty, and if you decide not to be loyal to it, it has the right to punish you as it rewards its followers. This is what it means to say those who as suffer have only themselves to blame: the Romans also gave that argument to the Christian martyrs. But now, we have a systematic evil which transcends anything envisioned by the Roman Empire, and it is often so-called Christians who are demanding people render worship to the monetary idol instead of God.

There is room for a free market, but it should not be considered the same thing as capitalism. Capitalism is all about the accumulation of money, of how to get the most. St. Thomas Aquinas attributes two different reasons for trade, with one being commendable and the other blameworthy:

A tradesman is one whose business consists in the exchange of things. According to the Philosopher (Polit. i, 3), exchange of things is twofold; one, natural as it were, and necessary, whereby one commodity is exchanged for another, or money taken in exchange for a commodity, in order to satisfy the needs of life. Such like trading, properly speaking, does not belong to tradesmen, but rather to housekeepers or civil servants who have to provide the household or the state with the necessaries of life. The other kind of exchange is either that of money for money, or of any commodity for money, not on account of the necessities of life, but for profit, and this kind of exchange, properly speaking, regards tradesmen, according to the Philosopher (Polit. i, 3). The former kind of exchange is commendable because it supplies a natural need: but the latter is justly deserving of blame, because, considered in itself, it satisfies the greed for gain, which knows no limit and tends to infinity.[4]

As St. Thomas points out, we do not have to reject trade, what we must do is understand the proper formation for trade. Once it is for the profit motive, it is blameworthy. It leads to vice and a desire which can have no end unless one sees through the desire for profit itself. Free markets are indeed proper and just, however, capitalism with its profit-motive is not, and indeed, its profit motive ultimately hinders the real benefit of the trade system itself. The more one has accumulated wealth, the more they can hinder trade, using the wealth they have to take out rivals through unjust manipulation, leading to a centralization of wealth which hinders the free distribution of goods. Capitalism is, in its essence, against free trade, but like many other goods, it finds a use for free trade and exploits it as long as it can. The goal is the accumulation of riches, and once enough is had, even competition can be – and is – squashed.

Competition is inherent in humanity, and can be used to create much which is good. This is obvious and the reason why it is often praised by those who would like to use it for their own evil ends. We must not turn competition into a goal of itself, as a good without understanding its true and proper use is for the common good. But, as history shows us, especially recent history, competition can be – and is often – manipulated. It can be used to do much evil. When proper ethical goals are not considered, competition becomes a tool for evil – and the goal of such manipulation is to end true competition, to make sure no one can be a true rival to the one who holds the reigns of power. If there is any real risk to them, they will use the power they have gained to rig the system – they will want the illusion of competition and thus promote competition, and use that illusion to suggest the good of the system itself. When we see such happening in a wide scale, as we do now, the system is broke. We must not be trapped by the illusion being promoted. We must transcend it now if we want the restoration of the common good.

[1]  See St. Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies. Trans. Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 366.

[2] Ibid., 366.

[3] Nicholas of Cusa,”De Pace Fidei” in Nicholas of Cusa’s De Pace Fidei and Cribratio Alkorani. Trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 1994), 70.

[4] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros. edition, 1947), II-II q77 a4.

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  • Dan

    Competition is an inherent part of the human condition, but I see it as part of our fallen nature rather than our spiritual one. The flesh is based on competition, but the spirit is based on co-operation. I’ve always wondered how society would look if it focused on co-operation rather than competition (not that it’s realistic).

    • I think competition can also be good — it is how we use it which can be bad. You will find, for example, many monks being encouraged to compete with one another in their ascetic discipline. Competition must, of course, be with cooperation, not against it, but if there is a race for virtue, isn’t that what will happen?

    • Mark Gordon

      The fundamental problem with late-stage capitalism isn’t competition and free markets. It’s the lack of competition and free markets.

  • WJ

    Capitalists don’t actually like competition. This is why big corporations either buy out or influence legislation against smaller start-ups that may infringe upon their market share. If capitalism were really the system of competition, then we wouldn’t need anti-trust and monopolization legislation, both of which are premised on the (correct) assumption that capitalism leads to a minimization of competition over the long haul, not its opposite.

    • Right, capitalism only uses competition, but in the end, cannot stand it.

  • Dear Henry,

    I always learn from your thoughtful posts. But, here, I think that your description of capitalism is questionable – that capitalism is a “self-serving” competition for the “idol” of money that ultimately becomes self-destructive. Following Kathryn Tanner, we can say the following about capitalism as an ideal:

    1. The competition doesn’t have to be “self-serving,” because self-interest is compatible with benevolence. We can grasp that we are happiest when we work for the good of others.
    2. The competition doesn’t have to be about securing the maximum amount of money – it can be based in the recognition that successful market transactions are the best way to secure basic goods, social needs, and even the future economic security that will eventually allow me to refrain from market transactions in a contemplative retirement.
    3. The competition proceeds in full recognition that, because of the division of labor, we are dependent on many other people for our own needs – even unseen people on distant continents.
    4. The competition means that, if I am self-aware, I will recognize that I am participating in a coordinated moral effort with those with whom otherwise I would not have a relationship.
    5. The competition, like any game, has clear rules that require certain virtues. For instance, I can’t cheat or ignore contracts.
    6. The competition means that I cannot maintain my usual patterns of exclusion, because I will very likely buy from the best supplier or sell to the highest bidder, whatever their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

    Furthermore, one can argue that most of the dysfunctions that we see occur because of the rejection or distorting of capitalism competition through:

    1. Publicly or privately secured monopolies.
    2. The refusal to accurately measure the market value of public goods like infrastructure or clean air or even the labor of overburdened human beings.
    3. The inability to see that the competition is for long-run value creation and the resulting investment in unsustainable securities, etc.

    (This list is not comprehensive.)

    I don’t mean to be an apologist for capitalism, but I wonder …

    • Neil,

      Capitalism, by itself, is about the accumulation of money. That’s the point and end of capitalism. When capitalism makes wealth the end, and a society uses capitalism as its ideal, then the society engages a false end as the end, which is exactly what idolatry is about. Using a lesser good as a final good leads to perdition. This does not mean there are no goods, but we must understand the relative good, but when the relative good is made absolute by society, what makes it less than the final good must be put forth. That is where my “money as idol” comes from — as a society, we put money/wealth as the final good, and it is used as the universal judge of value. To suggest that it is a relative good, therefore, is not to criticize my position but to put it forward. Since capitalism, as capitalism, is about the accumulation and generation of wealth, other concerns beyond that are not capitalist, but rather, something outside of capitalism with some similar principles.

      Note, for example, I am not criticizing competition — indeed, I am promoting it, but pointing out competition like many things can be good or bad depending upon other factors. But as a whole, I see it as a good as long as it is combined with a social ethic. Competition doesn’t have to be against the common good, but rather, the competition of people to find the best means to help the common good. The one who succeeds thus helps themselves, gets glory, but also raises everyone. The point I raised is that competition itself is not what capitalism is about, and indeed, capitalism only uses competition up to a certain point. The confusion is so many people have been led to believe, because capitalism at a stage uses competition, that a rejection of capitalism means a rejection of competition. A careful reading of what I wrote shows this is not the case.

      • Dear Henry,

        Perhaps we are simply arguing about the meaning of a word. You write, “Capitalism, by itself, is about the accumulation of money. That’s the point and end of capitalism.” I want to ask if this is necessarily true.

        Let me actually quote from Kathryn Tanner’s “Is Capitalism a Belief System?”:

        “…[T]he market need not be predicated on materialism; it simply presumes people are motivated to better their condition, to improve themselves and to ‘be more,’ and that the accumulation of material wealth, under market conditions in particular, is generally conducive to that betterment. This hardly implies, however, that people engage in market transactions to meet only their material needs; once basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are met, new social needs typically surface – for, say, entertainment or social prestige or intellectual enlightenment. While their moral character might remain in question, none of these attempts to better one’s condition need be especially materialistic. Nor does the fact that people engage in market transactions in the attempt to improve their condition imply that people want above all else to maximize their monetary wealth or income. They may simply be seeking economic security as a means to, or at least a necessary precondition for, the pursuit of ultimate life goals of a nonmaterialist sort. Not having to worry all the time about one’s material well-being – where, for example, one’s next meal is coming from – may be a means to the ultimate goal of gaining self-respect, or simply what allows one to turn one’s energies more fully in the direction of goals one views as finally more important – say, in the direction of a more virtuous, wise, or pious life.”

        Would you disagree with this? Or would you suggest that it describes something other than “capitalism?”

        (My concern is that the economy in the US right now is dysfunctional because many people believe that capitalism is “natural.” I tend to imagine that it is both artificial and fragile and requires sustained ethical reflection and government action for proper functioning.)


        • Neil,

          First, we need to avoid the confusion of free markets with capitalism. As I pointed out, one can be a trader for two different reasons (as per Aquinas). Capitalism is about the technique of capital accumulation, the goal and interest with capitalism is — capital. When people bring free markets into it, the question is not necessarily of capitalism as per its point. Markets for profit – that would be capitalism, especially when it is about the development of technique for the greatest profit possible. When we start looking to moral limitations for profit, then we are no longer looking at capitalism, however, capitalism can be used to suggest many ways which capital can be produced, and some could end up being moral. Thus, capitalism should be a tool (at best), not the foundation philosophy of a culture. I agree with you, in this case, it is “unnatural,” in the way any technique pushed to the extreme is unnatural: it is unholistic. However, because capitalism is seen as a guiding principle and not a tool, it has become a dangerous error. I am dealing with capitalism here as a principle for a society, such as many politicians put forward.

      • Dear Henry,

        (I hope that this comment appears in the right place. I’m responding to your comment from 3:37PM on 10.19.)

        Since you write, “When we start looking to moral limitations for profit, then we are no longer looking at capitalism,” would you say that “capitalism” doesn’t – perhaps can’t – exist in unadulterated form in reality?

        Thanks. I’ll stop bothering you after this – promise.

        • Well, I would agree that, in the world at large, ideals get diluted, but that doesn’t discount the role of the ideal in ideological talking points.

  • Great post, Henry, and it helps clarify my own thinking on this.

  • Henry:

    Can you name anyone who advocates a “purely capitalistic system, one free from regulations”? Do you think that’s a widespread opinion?

    Frankly, in reading your post and the comments thereto, I find myself getting confused over definitions. For example you seem to approve of “free markets” while disapproving of “capitalism”. Whereas I would have thought that the term “free market” would necessarily imply freedom from regulation, whereas “capitalism” may or may not imply that.

    I’m not particular about defending “capitalism” per se. When I defend (what I conceive as) capitalism, it’s as opposed to communism. I believe that generally, the freer the market, the more prosperous the society in general. I understand that a totally free market — completely regulation-free — could lead to unacceptable excesses. So naturally some regulation and “refereeing” are needed, and I would agree that the government is the entity that ought to carry out that responsibility.

    On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that since capitalism depends upon people buying things, those who sell things must necessarily be concerned with how they are perceived by the consumer, and that this must have the effect of moderating their behavior to a large extent. For example, there is the widespread perception (whether accurate or not) that most heads of corporations are Republicans. Yet all the largest corporations are making efforts to be “green” for the sake of at least appearing socially responsible. They do this not because the government orders them to, but for the sake of public relations. Therefore, they can’t afford to treat money-making as the be-all and end-all, since that would be self-defeating. Consumers mandate that companies at least *act* as though they care about social responsibility.

    It seems to me that you go to great lengths to define “capitalism” as “that economic philosophy in which people care for nothing but money”, and then proceed at length to talk about what’s wrong with that notion. But defined that way, it’s self-evident why it would be wrong. Explanation is hardly necessary, and I’m very skeptical whether many people would advocate such a philosophy. St. Thomas also said that people always seek the good, even if they are sometimes mistaken about what the good is, objectively. If people advocate “capitalism”, clearly they’re not advocating it as you define it.

    • Free market is about trade; capitalism is about the accumulation of capital. As pointed out, trade doesn’t have to be for the excessive accumulation of profit.

      Freedom, btw, is always regulated for it to be true freedom — true freedom is for the sake of the good. Freedom is not chaos. In chaos, there would be no freedom.

    • Kurt

      For example, there is the widespread perception (whether accurate or not) that most heads of corporations are Republicans. Yet all the largest corporations are making efforts to be “green” for the sake of at least appearing socially responsible. They do this not because the government orders them to, but for the sake of public relations.

      Oh, Angellius, my dear friend. If I only had a nickel for everytime an industry fought tooth and nail a particular regulation and, having lost their battle, took out large display ads about their pro-consumer/pro-environment actions they were undertaking!

      However, the point is, by the democratic process, by consumer activistism, by trade unionism, or by the possibility of one of those three, it is all different means of the need for popluar action to make business behave ethically and responsibly.

  • I agree that “market” connotes trade. But I submit that “free market” connotes uninhibited trade. See, e.g.,

    • There are many issues. Free market can be done in an non-capitalistic fashion (several ways for this, mutualism being one). Freedom, however, has contours, there has to be a structure (which regulates) in order for freedom to exist. Even what you pointed to (wikipedia for what it is worth) explains that there are regulations and limitations. Capitalism creates all kinds of limitations on the markets too, as people accumulate capital – it uses the markets, but then, through the ever-increasing wealth, in the end, the capital could be so controlled that the one who owns it all controls the markets, making it no longer free. St. Thomas Aqunas discusses all kinds of aspects of trade which would end up with free markets, but of a kind without the limitations imposed by capitalism. And the state is often needed in order to make sure justice is brought out in trade – the state should limit itself (free market again) but there is also a point when the state can and should step in when the trade is unjust (and not really free — such as dishonesty being engaged in the trade).

  • Henry:

    You write, “Even what you pointed to (wikipedia for what it is worth) explains that there are regulations and limitations.”

    The Wiki article also says, “A free-market economy is one within which all markets are unregulated by any parties other than market participants.”

    You write, “the state should limit itself (free market again) but there is also a point when the state can and should step in when the trade is unjust…”.

    I don’t know a single conservative who would disagree with that statement. A point of disagreement might exist as to where, precisely, that “point” should be. And there are also disagreements about what specifically constitutes “justice” in this context. Some would say anything less than income equality is unjust, whereas others would minimize it to say that people should be guaranteed merely a “living wage” (which however is another term on which people disagree).

    Again if your quarrel is with “pure” capitalism (or what I would call a “pure” free market), I think very few people would disagree with you. I think that position is an extreme one which is actually held by very few people, of which I don’t know a single one personally.

    • Capitalism is not the free market — free market is about trade, capitalism is about capital and wealth accumulation; free market does not have to be about profit. Once again, this is something basic. The reason why people talk about “free market capitalism” is because it is showing a means by which capitalism is working — but even then, once it engages inequality and injustice, it is no longer free — and again that is where the state comes in, where justice comes in, where justice is itself a market participant.

      Read Pope Benedict in a few days. Please.

  • Henry:

    You write, “The reason why people talk about “free market capitalism” is because it is showing a means by which capitalism is working…”.

    I understand that there is a distinction between “free market” and “capitalism”, hence the need for different terms to signify them. But in the context of “free market capitalism”, “free market” refers to markets being regulated by no one except market participants, which as far as I can see, is precisely one of the ideas you oppose. I can’t understand why you’re disputing this.

    I get that in a sense, free markets often are not truly “free” in every sense of the word. But this is an equivocation on the word “free”, which can be either positive or negative: I’m saying that “free market” refers to a negative freedom, i.e. freedom from outside regulation (and I believe this is the most common definition), and you’re saying that free markets often are not free in the positive sense. That’s fine and may well be true, but I think it’s confusing in this context to use “free” in two different senses. Why not just say that free markets are often unjust?

  • On another tack, with regard to your Aquinas quote, what exactly is wrong with the latter kind of trade, according to your understanding? I honestly don’t get it and would like to, since I think very highly of St. Thomas. Of course if you engage in any kind of trade for the motive of greed, that would be bad. But is he saying it’s impossible to seek profits for any reason other than greed, e.g. simply providing for your family?

    • He is saying trade should be of proper worth, not charging excess of value (or artificially making higher value, or misrepresenting the value, etc). He allows for moderate gain (not as the final goal, but to be used for a real good) but again, this shows the end is not the wealth itself. You might want to read the whole section in the Summa:

  • R. Rockliff

    I would like to add that the term “Free Market” has a specific meaning in economic terminology, and that most people agree, regardless of their ideology, that when used as a conventional economic terminological item, it means an ideal market in which there is no non-economic intervention. Various actual markets are approximations of this ideal, some conforming to it more than others do. This, however creates a confusion in meaning, because a market that is “free” of non-economic intervention is not necessarily “free” in the plain common sense of the word “free” that implies other kinds of freedom, such as freedom from deception and coercion. Most people understand that for an economic transaction to be considered a “free” choice, it needs to be free from deception and coercion, as well as free from external control. However, too often in history, those markets that have been very free in regard to external control degenerate into markets that are not very free of deception and coercion. I do not know if this is a paradox or not, but I think it improbable that anything like the abstract “Free Market” of economic theory has ever existed or could ever exist, when the absence of external control, whatever form it may take, consistently results in the emergence of internal dynamics that exercise a control of their own, not to mention the impact of deception and coercion.

    So, when Henry says something to the effect that a market cannot be free without regulation, he does not contradict himself, though he may contradict a Wikipedia definition. The Wikipedia definition simply recites the definition of an abstract ideal “Free Market,” while Henry uses the word “free” in the common sense meaning that implies freedom from any circumstance that would hinder any participant in a market from seeking his own good in a transaction. Regulation might hinder a corporation from entering into a specific transaction that would maximize its profits. From the perspective of that corporation, that regulation makes the market less “free.” On the other hand, regulation might prevent one party in a transaction from deceiving another party into entering into a specific transaction that is not “mutually beneficial.” From the perspective of the party that was saved from the deception, that regulation makes the market more “free.” Even the economics textbook definition implies or assumes there will be no deception or coercion, which, in the absence of regulation of some sort to prevent deception or coercion, makes that definition a mathematical abstraction with little real world applicability.

  • R:

    Thanks for that long explanation. But I think I understood all that. As I said, the word “free” is being used in different senses. I totally agree that a “free” market, in all the best senses of “free”, would be best for everyone, pretty much by definition. My only quibble is that the term “free market”, as commonly used, has a specific, common meaning that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the way Henry apparently believes it should be used.

    [BTW, I wonder why your comment got through while my recent one on the same topic is still awaiting moderation?]

    [I thought I had hit accept — HK]

    • If you understood that, then you understood we are dealing with the markets in the real world… so there should be no problem. Rockliff pointed out one aspect of it, though one can look at it theologically: God is perfectly free and yet can’t sin. How is that possible? True freedom, not the libertine notion of it.

  • R. Rockliff

    I think that many of these discussions are bedeviled by equivocation. Too many of the concepts that are discussed here are more complex than the language is equipped to distinguish. There are many different, and legitimate, definitions of “freedom,” because there are, in fact, many different kinds of freedom. Ideally, the language should have a distinct word for each distinct kind, and then our actual agreements and disagreements would be more transparent. As it is, many of us actual agree when we think we disagree, and actually disagree when we think we agree, all because we mean different things when we use the same words.

    All of that being said, I think that, if there were an actual market in the real world that were totally free, and remained totally free, in every possible sense of the word “free,” this market would cause very little mischief to man. However, and this is a very big however, I do not think that such a totally free market could exist in the real world, because there are more than one kind of freedom, and they cannot all coexist, because the increase of one logically necessitates the decrease of another. As such, there can never be, at least outside the realm of Platonic Forms, a perfectly and totally free market, there can only be markets that, the more free they are in one kind of freedom, the less free they are in another kind. Thus, the discussion about the merits and demerits of an absolutely free market becomes a discussion about the merits and demerits of one kind of freedom relative to another kind.

    • Rockliff

      I certainly agree; the insufficiency of language causes a great deal of conflict when trying to deal with concepts such as this. We are, moreover, met with a rather libertarian view of freedom in the modern world, which also shapes and creates more confusion ( I know Pope Benedict has written against this in some of his political reflections). And certainly this of course creates the debates where one freedom is posited against other, and someone will come out complaining about lack of freedom. Historically, the state as enforcer of justice was seen as helping provide the foundation for equity; now, we are told that everything will just happen by themselves if we remove regulations. Of course, what that means is that those with more monetary might will be, as you said, freer and dictate to everyone else.

  • R. Rockliff


    I think that an important aspect of this topic is the perpetual conflict between the ideal of the free market and the existence or emergence of “monopolies” within that market. I think that most people would agree that the presence of monopolies in a market compromises its status as a free market. However, I do not think that anyone has ever demonstrated that it is possible for an unregulated market to remain free of monopolies. On the other hand, the entity that imposes the regulation intended to prevent monopolies can itself be interpreted as another monopoly of a sort. At least that is how it is interpreted today. That is not generally how it was interpreted in pre-modern times, when the Church and the State imposed regulations on the market which were traditionally intended to preserve the social order from the damage that the market, if unregulated, might cause it. I suspect, however, that as both Church and State became more dependent on bankers, the regulations that were formerly imposed with the intention of protecting social fabric, more and more were imposed with the intention of protecting the interests of the financiers to whom both Church and State had become beholden. I suppose that today the secular government, which more than ever is beholden to financiers, also uses market regulation to this end far more often than it does in the interests of society.

    • Rockliff,

      Sadly, I think this is — in general, correct. The Church properly saw the need for authorities to help regulate market forces, to prevent injustice through the predatory practices that many can engage in an regulated society. The authorities themselves can be, and often end up being, corrupted. I think the best approach is to see a constant cycle of flux as to where that authority is to emerge, when it needs to emerge. Currently, it seems the Vatican is supporting a universal, world authority to help deal with this:

  • R. Rockliff


    Even if the United States were a majority Catholic nation, I do not think that many Americans would respond favorably to an international regulatory body, even if it operated according to principles established by the Vatican, though, ironically, there are many Americans, even Catholics, who are prepared to accept the dictates of international trade agreements, that do as much, or even more, to compromise the sovereignty of the United States.