Making the market king

Filed in Ethics by on January 22, 2014 0 Comments

In recent days the readings at Mass have been exploring the story of the institution of the monarchy amongst God’s people. One can write for days on the different theologies of monarchy in the scripture, but all would have to agree that monarchy is not always seen as a good thing in the Bible.

A classic text on this is 1 Sam 8. Here, the leaders of Israel approach Samuel and ask him to appoint a king. Samuel responds with a warning about the dangers of such a move.

I’d just like to highlight a couple of points. First, the leaders want a leader so that they can be like their neighbours. They want someone to rule them and to fight their battles. Second, Samuel’s warning takes the form of: this kind of submission has no limits; that is, you think you are giving over a little, but much more will be taken. And in areas you thought were outside the scope.

We can see here the problem of freedom and truth, what G.E.M. Anscombe called somewhere ‘the paralysis of choice’. It is hard to be free. It means we must be responsible. We have to assess different courses of action. More importantly, we have to consider the values and processes that ground such potential courses of action. The temptation therefore is to shirk this responsibility. We want to look free, be like our neighbours, but we don’t want to live the life of freedom with all its tensions and consequences.

We can see a discussion on just this point in relation to markets between Michael Sandel and Robert George – see the video above. Michael Sandel makes the interesting point (about 30:00 in) that the markets give us the impression that a contract between two consenting adults means we do not have to think about meaning or right and wrong. It all seems to be taken care of by the parties to the contract. However, he says this deferral of the question leads to a corruption of public morality and to the poverty of political debate that we now see everywhere.

Have we made the market king, crediting it with more than it can handle, and, in doing so, lost more than we thought?

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Fr Jerome Santamaria

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Fr Jerome Santamaria is a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia.

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