A question from a reader:
Look, here’s the challenge for Christians, *if* they can see it: those men in suits, in offices, they’re out for themselves, selfish, no thought for the common good. But mankind’s progress has been migration, conquest even, leading to trade in goods and ideas and methods. Self interest has worked for mankind’s benefit, the greed of those men in suits has worked for mankind. At the very least man has been served better by his restlessness than by any higher motives. How do Christians respond to this – to us – paradox.
Within Catholicism at least, the only brand of Christianity that I know much about, it is the motive for an action which is important. A married couple having a legover as a result of their mutual love for each other is just fine: admirable even, a use of one of God’s gifts to us (dependent upon the level of contraception being used or not of course, nothing is ever simple in Catholicism). A man demanding a jump from his wife because he is blinded with lust is not admirable. Indeed, many would say it is sinful. The action might be the same but the reason matters.
As to a market economy, where we’re all assumed to be motivated by our (enlightened) self interest yes, if we think of this as purely being driven by greed then we do have a problem. Greed is indeed a sin and thus, again within Catholicism, we cannot accept that good things can come from bad. So while the results of a market economy, driven by that greed, seem to be better than any other system we’ve tried, that original motive makes the result unacceptable.
Many people, rather cleverer than I am, have grappled with this problem for some number of years longer than I have done so. But here’s at least my attempt at the beginning of an explanation.
Which is that markets, certainly the business world that I’ve been involved with, are not all that much about competition. It’s there, certainly, but that’s not what is really going on. The competition is to try and find the people that you can cooperate with. Say my process needs widgets: I’m not competing with those who make widgets in the slightest. But those who make widgets are competing with each other to find who is going to be the one who cooperates with me in providing my widgets.
We are not competing therefore: we, I and the widget makers, are trying to work out on the basis of price, reliability, quality and all that, who should be the people that we cooperate with.
To return to our sex analogy, we are in a dating market before we make our choice. True, that choice is not until death us do part but believe me, there’s still a commitment being made. Anyone in business will tell you how difficult it is to depose an incumbent supplier.
As above there’s a great deal more thought gone into this question than I can offer. But I would at least begin to argue that the way out of this paradox is to understand that markets are a selection mechanism as to who to cooperate with rather than vicious and impersonal competition driven by greed. Just as the dating market works: we’re looking for the best we can get and no one at all thinks that this is odd behaviour in that context.