The Progressive Critique of Free Markets: A Response | Part 5

Free Markets, Social Darwinism, and Christianity

The early Progressives leveled two additional and particularly sharp criticisms against the free market that sought to place it beyond any moral defense. First, they argued that it amounted to laissez-faire, a thoroughgoing form of free-market economics that permits very few, if any, economic regulations. This criticism was potentially devastating because it claimed that free markets amounted to a form of anarchy that refused to countenance many salutary regulations. The charge appeared to be credible in large part because there were indeed some very prominent and influential advocates of laissez-faire in the 19th century. These included such intellectuals as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Henry Carter Adams, the influential progressive political economist, attacked Spencer’s call for “unregulated workings of the law of supply and demand.”The progressive Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. also famously attacked laissez-faire in his dissent in the Lochner decision, writing, “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.”

Laissez-faire advocates were in some cases tainted by their support for Social Darwinism, a system of ethics that advocates leaving poor and suffering people to their own devices. This morally callous philosophy has done great harm ever since to the cause of economic liberty. Even in our day, the charge of Social Darwinism is leveled by some critics of the free market, who allege that the free market means that “you are on your own,” and that no one need be concerned for the most vulnerable people. At times, such rhetoric is clearly exaggerated. For example, a congressional proposal for modest tax-and-spending cuts that left core welfare state benefits in place was described by President Barack Obama as “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”

The second sharp progressive criticism against free markets—one that we continue to hear in our day from progressive Christians—is that it is unchristian. Progressive Christians are joined in their religious attack on free markets by the secular left, which offers a post-Christian, quasi-religious vision of secular economic redemption. These contemporary religious and quasi-religious criticisms originated in the Progressive Era. Like the charge that the free market amounts to laissez-faire, the progressive religious critique was also potentially devastating because it claimed that the free market stood outside the sacred moral framework of Western civilization.

The early progressive Christian alternative to the free market took the form of the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel was a 19th- and 20th-century protestant reform movement, especially prominent during the Progressive Era, that sought the fulfilment of one’s full Christian duty by means of progressive social, political, and economic reform. Ely and the protestant theologian Walter Rauschenbusch were the two most prominent Social Gospel advocates. Ely’s position as a political economist gave him special influence in the Social Gospel movement because he could bring to his Social Gospel reform advocacy his scholarly authority as an expert in economics. Ely argued that, properly understood, Christianity requires us to aim first and foremost for the secular redemption of the earth rather than entrance into Heaven in the afterlife. In opposition to two millennia of Christian thought, Ely wrote that “Christianity is primarily concerned with this world.” He rejected as an “unfortunate error” the traditional Christian view “that Christianity is concerned primarily with a future state of existence.”

Progressive earthly reforms would be our best way of practicing the second commandment of Christ, “love thy neighbor.” The Social Gospel’s grand secular goals were hugely ambitious, yet they stood within reach because every significant human problem could be solved in principle by means of the new, modern discipline of social science. Social science was the great and efficacious instrument for analyzing and solving human problems, thereby fulfilling Christ’s second commandment. And so, in Ely’s words, “the second commandment…in its elaboration, becomes social science or sociology.” Ely was joined in his call for Christian reform by his fellow progressive technocrats, and especially by his former student John Commons.

The free market stood in the way of Social Gospel reforms. For Progressives, its unchristian selfishness and dogmatic resistance to social science–based reforms rendered it morally illegitimate for a Christian people. The free market prevented individuals from fulfilling their full Christian duty to others, and every good Christian was required to reject the free market and support social science and progressive reforms. While in our day the Social Gospel is not expressly mentioned, its echoes remain in progressive Christianity, which argues that interventionist economics is needed if we are to fulfill our Christian duty to others. Both Social Gospelers and progressive Christians can thus pose as exponents of moral views closer to the West’s Christian heritage.

These two charges—that the free market amounts to laissez-faire anarchy and that it is unchristian—are both false. Laissez-faire economics is not identical to the natural rights free-market economics that comes to us from the American Founding. Natural rights free-market economics is consistent with the founding principles of the United States because free-market economics rests on a political framework that includes the belief that all men are created equal and that government exists to protect our pre-existing natural right to life, liberty, and property. In consequence, the economy under natural rights free-market economics must be subordinate to politics, meaning that the economy cannot be permitted to subvert the free political order upon which it rests.

To be consistent with the principles of the American Founding, political economy must incorporate the moral goal of the maintenance of a free society. This means, among other things, that economic relations can be regulated if they subvert the moral conditions of freedom, because if the moral conditions of freedom are harmed, then the free political order that grounds free markets will also be harmed. In other words, the political economy of the Founders aims at both political freedom and economic prosperity as moral goals—and therefore efforts at increasing prosperity must not be permitted to harm efforts at preserving and advancing political freedom. For this reason, for example, the government can outlaw prostitution or regulate the sale of liquor. Moreover, the government can regulate the economy to prevent force, fraud, and physical harm, including harm to oneself by way of self-destructive contracts. Natural rights free-market economics therefore permits police power regulations intended to prevent moral, economic, and physical harms. It elevates morality above unqualified economic gain. Laissez-faire advocates either deny the police power or gravely restrict it, and in that sense they fall outside of the boundaries of natural rights free-market economics.

Another major difference between laissez-faire economics and natural rights free-market economics concerns the government’s treatment of the poor. Natural rights free-market economics permits some basic welfare programs on the grounds that we are morally obliged to preserve those too poor to help themselves. As the great natural rights theorist John Locke put it, “Every one…when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind.” And indeed, the early republic did make provision for some welfare. Thomas Jefferson favorably described assistance to the poor by Virginia: “The poor, unable to support themselves, are maintained by an assessment on the titheable persons in their parish.” The goals of such public support were the preservation of the person’s life and, if possible, his self-sufficiency. Jefferson described an early form of workfare: “Vagabonds, without visible property or vocation, are placed in workhouses, where they are well clothed, fed, lodged, and made to labour.” This arrangement was apparently used quite extensively in early America: “Nearly the same method of providing for the poor prevails through all our states,” Jefferson wrote. By contrast with this minimal, natural rights welfare, laissez-faire proponents typically argue against all welfare programs. To be sure, laissez-faire economics is compatible with voluntary charity. And in our day, laissez-faire advocates (a group including many libertarians) frequently display admirable personal generosity toward the poor.

The Progressive Era charge that natural rights free-market economics is unchristian rested on a flawed understanding of Christianity. Social Gospel Christianity, one may argue, was not genuinely Christian because it denied the key Christian belief in the primacy of the afterlife over life on earth. It also implicitly denied original sin and so sought a secular, earthly redemption that, to an orthodox Christian, is unattainable.

The central error of the Social Gospel was its subordination of religion to politics and economics. By understanding Christianity as being fulfilled through politics and economics, it reduced Christianity to politics and economics. Today’s progressive Christianity retains the eschatology of traditional Christianity, and so it avoids the worst theological error of the Social Gospel. But like their Social Gospel predecessors, progressive Christians continue to insist on economic interventionism and income redistribution, while providing no persuasive argument for the theological necessity of such policies. In fact, Americans can be good Christians if they support minimal public welfare and are privately generous to the less fortunate.

The Way Ahead

The early Progressives noticed and addressed many legitimate problems of industrial society—but arrived at erroneous conclusions and solutions, many of which are being implemented to this day. The poor have always been with us, but they became much more visible as they crowded into our growing urban centers. Their problems could have been addressed by a combination of the free market, police power regulations at the state level, private charity, and minimal public welfare.

Instead, the early Progressives captured the moral imagination of countless economic reformers. Though Progressivism went into abeyance after World War I, it resurfaced in the 1930s with Roosevelt’s New Deal, which echoed many progressive arguments and carried out many of their policies. The next great surge in progressive economics occurred as a result of the Great Society. Since the 1960s, we have seen the federal government steadily increase its role in the economy, with only a moderate claw-back during the Reagan years. To this day, the American political system takes its bearings from the fundamental criticisms of the free market made over a century ago by Progressives, expressed through various interventions such as minimum wage laws, agricultural and industrial subsidies, and efforts to “correct” an allegedly unjust gap between rich and poor by way of income redistribution.

Yet despite a century of political success, interventionists have steadily failed to confront the strongest moral, theoretical, and practical arguments for free markets and against interventionism. Their failure provides an opening to advocates of economic liberty. A responsible, natural rights free-market economy (and not an austere system of laissez-faire) can and should capture the moral imagination of a new cohort of reformers. We can recover the natural rights regime of the Founders and their successors. But that recovery will mean returning to the Progressive Era confrontation between free markets and interventionism, seeing the natural rights regime and natural rights free-market economics as real, living, moral options, and reversing the choice the nation made to depart from its Founding. Advocates of economic liberty might reflect on and promote the Supreme Court’s opinion in Lochner. In delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Rufus Peckham wrote:

There is no reasonable ground for interfering with the liberty of person or the right of free contract by determining the hours of labor in the occupation of a baker. There is no contention that bakers as a class are not equal in intelligence and capacity to men in other trades or manual occupations, or that they are not able to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State, interfering with their independence of judgment and of action. They are in no sense wards of the State.

Lochner v. New York, at 57.

When most Americans return to the belief that adults can be presumed to be able to take care of themselves, we will have taken a large step toward recovering our economic liberty. The rest of the journey may take as long as the progressive march through our government and economy. We can copy their formula for long-term success: A principled critique of the existing order, combined with a clearly articulated vision of the new order.


About the Author

Luigi Bradizza, PhD, is Associate Professor of Political Science at Salve Regina University and the author of Richard T. Ely’s Critique of Capitalism.