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The Free Market with a Human Face

Speaking Personally

by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 2.

It is an astonishing phenomenon: the predominant influence on America today is a militant minority committed to what might be called "Evangelical Capitalism." Evangelical Capitalists say they are devoted to individual liberty first and foremost. By this they mean economic liberty, which they apparently view as divinely inspired-"the hand of God," as it were-at work in human institutions. This is translated concretely into their demands for business deregulation, lower taxes, and free trade come hell or high water.

Evangelical Capitalists are not talking simply about the laissez faire doctrines of Adam Smith, the freedom of individual entrepreneurs to engage in commerce. They seek unfettered freedom for huge corporations that already dominate national and global markets. They oppose any governmental interference with corporate actions, for the business of government is business, not welfare, or education, or public health. Evangelical Capitalists' devotion to economic liberty is so extreme that it seemingly precludes any concern for the common good.

Max Weber, founder of modern sociology, observed that the rise of capitalism is related to the emergence of the Protestant ethic, with its emphasis on thrift, saving, and diligent effort; and also with its view that the accumulation of wealth is a dispensation from God rewarded to those most deserving of it. American workers may be the hardest working and most productive in the world, though we are now told by Evangelical Capitalists (contradicting the work ethic and thrift) that they need to "spend and consume" to stimulate the economy! Evangelicals fervently believe that everything should be left to the free market. This will stimulate economic growth;  a rising tide will lift all boats.

No doubt there is some truth to this. The free market, released from the dead hand of inefficient governmental (or corporate) bureaucracy, can be a powerful engine of economic growth, as the former proponents of "social planning"-such as China and now Russia-have learned.

But surely the free market is not a panacea for every social ill, nor an infallible instrument for human progress. One cannot test every human need by the profit it generates. Those who wish to privatize everything-perhaps even social security-court enormous risk. And they disregard countless unmet social needs: environmental protection; crumbling national rail and metropolitan transit systems; declining inner cities; the demutualization of life insurance companies for the benefit of stockholders but to the detriment of policyholders; the loss of retirement funds by employees working for bankrupt companies; a static minimum wage; and the disgraceful fact that 42 million Americans have no medical health insurance.

The latter item is especially poignant: the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, does not have a universal system of health coverage. Here a basic humanistic principle is at stake: the conviction that health care is a human right and that each person is entitled to some coverage.

The legislation now enacted and signed by the president to provide prescription aid for the elderly may be long overdue, but it is also another illustration of "too little, too late." Worse, it rewards private health- maintenance organizations, encouraging them to enter this arena, perhaps one day to supplant government-run Medicare. Nor will this bill allow cheaper drugs to be imported from Canada, a sop to the pharmaceutical industry.

Evangelical Capitalists claim that "we cannot afford" universal health insurance or adequate prescription- drug coverage for the elderly. Yet government provides massive handouts to corporations, farm subsidies for agricultural conglomerates, and a huge tax cut and the gradual repeal of estate taxes for the wealthy. Lobbyists toil for the special interests: the hogs feed mightily at the pork-barrel trough and keep the feed coming through deal-making lubricated by campaign contributions. There is a long line of suitors buying political influence. No wonder corporate profits today in industry after industry are breaking all records.

Interestingly, as the nation's piety increases, its compassionate concern for those most in need tends to decrease. European democracies are much more secular than the United States and equally committed to freemarket economics, yet they manage to supplement private enterprise with principles of social justice. America at present cannot and will not pursue social justice-because it is committed to the dogmas of Evangelical Capitalism. We need a free market, yes, but with a human face—a free market that also recognizes principles of equity and fairness, welfare and justice, and some concern for the common good.

If freedom and the free market are sacrosanct, then why not privatize the armed forces, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency? The heavens forbid. If freedom from government regulation is sacred, then why not truly defend the rights of individual freedom and privacy? Let's start with a woman's right to choose, the right of terminally ill patients to choose euthanasia, the right of any two individuals to cohabit or marry. The Evangelicals wish to regulate the most intimate part of each person's life. Here liberty ends and piety intrudes.

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Center for Inquiry.

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