Is Capitalism Immoral? An Interview with Father Robert Sirico

There is something deeply autobiographical about your own "moral case for a free economy," isn't there? How has your own journey shaped your voice on this topic?

Coming from a rather vivid place (Brooklyn, New York, circa 1950's) I have led a rather vivid life (and, in some periods, a deeply regretted life). I suppose that many of those encounters and memories formed the way I looked at the world (especially my encounter with a Holocaust survivor which I recount at the outset of the book). Add to that the fact that I have been a public speaker for most of my life, and you have the parabolic nature of the narrative.

Economics is not called the "dismal science" for nothing. I wanted my book to be accessible, but not simplistic; so I resorted to the use of stories. Of course, Jesus does such a masterful job in his parables, and in my homilies I have found that I can relate serious matters to a diverse congregation if I can devise the right story.  There is no higher compliment to a preacher than when a child and a college professor tell you that they got something out of your homily.

That's some helpful context to the book. Regarding, "capitalism" many view its anthropology—homo economicus --as fairly complete. A lot of social, economic and political theory assumes it. Why is that a problem?

The economic man of capitalism has no culture. That is the problem with homo economicus. But real human beings do. I cite a friend of mine who wrote about these matters years ago, Rev. Edmund Opitz, now deceased. He put it so well when he observed that the free market reflects everything that human beings in their free and peaceful actions represent, because it is nothing other than that.

I want to underscore that the free economy in a free society is conducive to human flourishing, but human flourishing certainly needs more than freedom: it needs objective standards of right and wrong, that is, virtue—the virtues revealed to us through reason and which receive confirmation through Revelation.

Speaking of culture and capitalism, what do you make of the late Daniel Bell's thesis regarding the "cultural contradictions of capitalism"? How does a culture as an ecology shape economic processes, systems, powers, etc.?

As I recall Professor Bell's thesis, it seems to be good in identifying many of these "cultural contradictions" but weak in clearly establishing the cause-and-effect relationship between a decaying culture and the market. I certainly agree with many of his observations, including the emphasis he places on religion as the remedy for the temptations we all experience in the free society. This is precisely why I am attempting to ground the free economy upon adequate and coherent moral—and ultimately theological—foundations.

Indeed, one's view of human freedom and virtue can affect how one views a "moral case for a free economy" and also the morality of governance.

People who are virtuous will see the market as a means, not an end. Their moral formation will impact their economic choices and the institutions (whether charitable, cultural or economic) they build. They will also understand the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville, who said: "Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.... How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?" 

If we can achieve higher levels of morality, government can be easily limited.  The paradox is that if we cannot achieve a higher level of moral culture, this is all the more reason to limit the government, because those who govern are not immaculately conceived.

Yet, some who govern act as if they are "immaculately conceived." They may even have a stronger propensity to advocate for a kind of "government-commanded" capitalism.

This kind of "capitalism" is the most egregious because it enables the most politically powerful and politically well-connected to become the most economically powerful and to escape the disciplines of free competition.

Throughout American and European history, we have seen plenty of what is really "managerial capitalism" and "crony capitalism," witnessed their distorting effects upon markets, and how they cause people to misunderstand the true nature of truly free markets.

This is part of a three part interview with FR. Robert Sirico read parts Two and Three.

6/12/2012 4:00:00 AM