Getting Religion Back into Our Economic Lives
Freedom depends on it.

Fr. Robert A. Sirico


LOPEZ: So after the president’s health-care try, what would you suggest we do?

FR. SIRICO: Politicians are generally followers, not leaders. In order to change the way society works, we need to first change, not primarily the politicians, but the way citizens think. Americans simply need to get over the notion that they can get something for nothing. When put that way, everyone agrees, until you start to zero in on one of their particular goodies or pet subsidies: Think student loans, Social Security, tariffs that benefit my business, or subsidized loans and grants that benefit my company or farm. A free and competitive economy in all these and other areas, under the rule of law of course, is a more risky place, but ultimately for everyone concerned a more prosperous place as well.

LOPEZ: Is marriage an indispensable support for a moral economy?

FR. SIRICO: Traditional marriage (one man, one woman, open to new life, and for life) is utterly indispensable. In a way, the family as I have just described it is a microcosm of the world — in a way similar to that in which a entrepreneur conceives of an idea and perseveres, in a stable commitment, to fashion and create that idea, making what was once merely a non-material dream or concept into something real and concrete, so too love in marriage that is open to procreation embodies all those ideals at a far more fundamental and personal level than any business. This is how and why business can be also understood as a type of calling.

Immediately people will reply, “Well, that is not always possible; that is merely an ideal of marriage.”

I agree with this observation, but I would not use the word “merely.” Ideals are benchmarks, objective goals determined to be worthy and good in themselves. Too many people today reduce their moral standards to the level of the low secularist expectations of the good life rather than striving and persevering in the truth to get the way they live to give effect to morality.

Yes, couples separate or divorce, or one or the other dies. Sometimes grandparents raise their grandchildren or a single uncle or aunt takes in an orphaned child. The varieties of the arrangements could go on. The thing is that they are not what we should set out to do; they are not the norm.

LOPEZ: Is religion an indispensable support for a moral economy?

FR. SIRICO: Certainly some kind of ethical belief is essential for an economy to flourish. If I were, for the sake of time, to choose just one virtue, it would be trust, as an example; a free economy simply could not exist without some level of trust.

Now, that is not the same as religion. What seems to be to be undeniable is the fact that the Judeo-Christian set of presuppositions about who human beings are — and the importance of reason, freedom, and creativity for the building of civilization — has resulted in the most free and prosperous society the world has ever known — bar none. That is no coincidence, I think. This happened precisely because of those fundamental ideas.

The cultural dimension of how to build a society worthy of human beings is often underplayed by some of my libertarian friends. The fact is, you can remove all the barriers to trade and free expression and the like, but that does not ensure you are going to be able to create a society that people want to live in. Human beings don’t just seek freedom — this is, of course, necessary, but it is not sufficient. And when you begin to consider what other factors go into the making of a society that is both free and good — or, as I have been saying for years, “the free and virtuous society” — that is when you bump into religion.

LOPEZ: Do we make those two last connections — about the indispensable supports that are marriage and religion — enough?

FR. SIRICO: Not nearly enough. We tend to compartmentalize our lives, which is deadly both to the economy (which becomes devoid of virtue) and to religion (which becomes disembodied and irrelevant to our free choices and actions).

LOPEZ: Can economic activity ever be “green”?

FR. SIRICO: Generally by its nature, free economic activity and private property conserves things. Economic life is not just about creative destruction. Much of the problem with various kinds of externalities is a problem in clearly defining private property. As I ask in the book, Which car do you tend to slow down when driving over some railroad tracks? A rental car or your own car? When you probe why we tend to conserve our own property rather than “public” property, then you understand why free economic activity tends toward conservancy to a greater extent than collective, political, or socially owned and managed property. Aquinas made the same point in his own defense of private property as the normal way in which we realize the universal destination of good.

LOPEZ: “If one ponders the state of our society carefully, one finds signs of human flourishing side by side with creeping desiccation.” Is there more of one than the other? Are we at a time when we are called to choose one over the other?

FR. SIRICO: I fear we may be at a tipping point, and we are going to have to decide whether we can imbibe the myth that we can all live at everyone else’s expense, as Bastiat put it. I understand that we are approaching the point at which the majority of people are living at the expense of the remaining taxpayers. Now, this is complicated, because they usually also pay taxes as well, but at some point it is going to be difficult if not impossible to reverse the trajectory.