Community: Free Market Church?

A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it … gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.
~ Milton Friedman, teacher of economics at Chicago University; winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics; winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988.

Friedman, is an influential character in his field, but his record is not without stains of controversy. His excursions to Chile during the 70s and his mentoring of what became known as “the Chicago Boys,”  a group of Chilean students who later became key figures in that nation’s government, irritated many because of Chile’s repressive regime at the time.

Free Market Boogie

Recently, I was listening to an account of Friedman’s legacy to the Chicago Boys who, in the midst of the Pinochet regime, brought about free market reforms in Chile. In spite of Pinochet’s egregious human rights abuses, “free-marketeers” find a lot to applaud in the economic turnaround that happened in Chile. Indeed, the work of the Friedman and the Chicago Boys has become part of what has been called the Capitalist Revolution, which has contributed to an increasingly global economy.

Moreover, Friedman argues that a free market and a free society are corollary. Arnold Harberger, widely considered to be the leading spokesman for Chicago School of economics, paraphrases Friedman saying,

…you cannot have a repressive government for long within a genuinely free economic system [because] freedom is going to have to pass over to the political side, and that of course, is exactly what did happen in Chile. The evolution took quite a number of years to make, but it happened, and in that sense, Chile is an example of a peaceful transition from [authoritarianism] to a civilian democratic government.

It should be remembered that during the evolution Harberger mentions the disparity between the wealthy and the poor increased exponentially, unemployment skyrocketed above 30% and the poor suffered most through the transition. Nevertheless, the transition did happen both economically and politically.

Friedman may be right. But it occurs to me that the free market, and its attendant free society, tends toward entropy, that is it begins to break down at some point. Consumers become fond the twin luxuries of cost and convenience until competition eventually takes its toll on more and more companies. The lure of growth is an enticement to sell the corporate soul to satisfy the appetite of its stockholders and executive class. Mergers gobble up competition until only a few producers survive; monopolies tempt government involvement. The end result can be similar to “governmentization.” Mega-corporations within free markets have a dampening effect on the economy. Furthermore, as business owners and investors ride the economic wave they often are swept away — the boardroom becomes a kind of boat — from their “soul” namely the workers and consumers upon whom they depend, drifting until there is little relationship between the two.

Church, INC.

So, am I a socialist? Am I an opponent of the free market system? No. Neither am I an economic critic. My point here is to draw from a few observations what is relevant to the community of the Jesus Way. As followers of Jesus we may not have a lot we can do about global economics, but there is plenty we can do about godliness and relationship at an interpersonal level.

Here is the lesson followers of the Jesus Way can learn from the free market: the further management gets from local economies and local people, the more distant it becomes from the values that are near the heart of God: virtues of compassion, equity, generosity, kindness and self-control. Such virtues define what we sometimes call “godliness.” They are qualities that are fundamentally human and not institutional. When corporations become top-heavy they subdue the soul of the people who can no longer influence the organization that governs the market on which they rely. Organization, hierarchy and institutionalism overwhelm the interpersonal relationships needed to create the environment in which godly qualities flourish.

In other words, the free market may well feed political democracy, but in the end it creates institutions estranged from the world of the interpersonal — the institution loses its soul. And as it does it destroys economic democracy. Without both political democracy and economic democracy, neither can endure.

Church Beware

Similar consequences can impact the church. As a body it is up to the church not to become distant from its soul, namely compassion, equity, generosity, nurture, kindness and self-control. These only flourish at the level of the interpersonal. The journey of the soul of the church is from relationship (with Christ), through relationship (with one another), and to relationship (with the Father). If Christ’s followers become “free market churches” turning to economic principles and institutional values as a model for church life, they will find themselves being swept along, even if slowly, by a continental drift away from relationship and toward organization.

Practically, this means that the faith community should not be characterized by a large, corporate organization that mandates the “soul-duties” of nurture care and compassion by official policy. Rather, faith communities ought to be small, simple and devoted units, ”its members fully known to one another” functionally autonomous, yet voluntarily interdependent. Without such interpersonal emphasis, the church, too, can tend toward relational entropy as “capitalist ecclesiology” encourages competition for ever-larger chunks of the market. Christ-followers should not be consumers in the marketplace of church. They ought to be small, interdependent communities of faith (think households) whose primary focus is not program, service or even “getting fed” but commitment to expressing godliness, the soul of the church.

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