Market Fundamentalism: Where Money Is an Idol
Published in PRISM Magazine, May/June, 2012.
When Marie G.’s house was foreclosed, auctioned off on the steps of the county courthouse, she wandered through the rooms of her home for two days. “I felt like I did after my divorce,” she said. “I felt so lost, so humiliated. Ashamed.” She added, “It affected my faith. I felt like God had abandoned me.”
Home foreclosures in the United States have been steadily rising since the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2007, with over one million homes foreclosed in 2010 alone[i]. Since public policy prioritizes corporate profits over the needs of homeowners, this is no surprise. Nevertheless, many who lose their homes experience it as personal failure, and are left feeling humiliated and ashamed. This makes sense in a culture that glorifies financial success and promotes market-based solutions to social problems.
In a society that holds these values as primary, the wealthy become role models. Those who lose their jobs, homes, or health care may blame themselves and may even be judged by others. As William Stringfellow says, “The idolatry of money means that the moral worth of a person is judged in terms of the amount of money possessed or controlled. . . . Where money is an idol, to be poor is a sin.”[ii]
Does God Control the Market?
Results of the Baylor Religion Survey, released in September, 2011, show that 20% of people in the United States believe that God controls the free market. This belief system merges faith in unrestrained free market capitalism with an overtly religious world view. According to sociologist Paul Froese, co-author of the survey, “They say that the invisible hand of the free market is really God at work.”[iii]
This is an extreme example of what has been called “Market Fundamentalism,[iv]” the belief that minimally regulated, laissez-faire markets provide the greatest possible prosperity and social well being. This economic ideology has dominated economic discourse in the United States for three decades.
What is new, however, is the merging of this secular ideology with an overtly religious worldview. This merger presents grave personal, social, and environmental implications.
To view the Market as the work of God is idolatrous. It sets up money as a god.
Personal Implications—Moral Distortion
To see God as in control of the Market implies that money and goods are allocated according to a divine plan. This is a form of economic determinism, with God meting out reward and punishment in monetary terms. From this perspective, to regulate the Market is to interfere with the purposes of God.
At a personal level, this strangely syncretised[v] religion can produce ethical confusion and moral distortion because it exchanges spiritual for worldly values. The core values of free-market capitalism, such as greed and self interest, become virtues. Wealth becomes a sign of God’s favor. Individuals who understand God in this way may care about the needy and contribute to charities. At the same time, they may oppose government policies that could alleviate suffering, improve social equity, or redistribute wealth or income, on the grounds that such policies go against the will of God.
People without money become expendable, since they fall outside the purview of the Market. They may become scapegoats. The poor and declining middle class who internalize this worldview may blame themselves for their economic misfortune and may even see it as a sign that they are under the judgment of God.
Social Implications: The Social Fabric is Torn Apart
The ideology that underlies unrestrained free market capitalism rationalizes unjust and unsustainable policies and practices. To claim that this ideology is aligned with God’s purpose turns traditional religious beliefs upside down.
The Market does not measure the value of other sectors of society upon which the formal economy rests: unpaid household work, volunteer labor, government-supported infrastructure, cultural resources, or the foundational gifts of the natural world. The Market does not measure human need, but only supply and demand based on what people can afford to buy. In addition, those with economic and political power manipulate the Market, creating advantages for the wealthy and large corporations at the expense of small businesses, the middle class, and the poor. The Market leaves those without money behind. This is a far cry from any traditional understanding of God.
When the values of unrestrained free-market capitalism dominate public policy, economic relationships take priority and the social fabric is torn apart. Politicians, funded by profit-driven corporations, can call for “less government” while invoking the name of God. This provides a religious cover behind which politicians, CEOs, and others in positions of power can hide when putting corporate profits above social and environmental needs.
Environmental Implications—Desecration and Sacrilege
Market Fundamentalism knows nothing of the intrinsic value of God’s creation. Its view is purely utilitarian, based on turning plants, animals, land, and even water into commodities to be bought and sold. It reduces the value of everything to the economic value of the bottom line. This ideology desacralizes life and creates a framework that allows creation to be exploited for financial gain.
In current economic measurements, all expenditures, whether they have positive or negative effects on people or the earth, contribute to the Gross National Product (GNP), creating a distorted view of progress and ignoring alternative economic measurements that take account of economic, environmental, and social well-being. In economic terms, an old-growth forest is an “underperforming asset.” It shows up as an addition to the Gross National Product (GNP) only after it has been harvested and sold. Standard economic measurements ignore “externalities,” the social and environmental costs that come about through the process of extracting resources and producing, packaging, and transporting consumer goods. Climate change, toxic pollution, habitat destruction, species loss, and other environmental damages are not reflected in the costs of doing business or in the prices we pay.
To claim God’s blessing on this ideology is a travesty. “To despoil the earth, pollute the air, and contaminate the water, is a desecration and sacrilege. To knowingly and willfully do so is sin.”[vi]
The merger of Market Fundamentalism with blatant religiosity implies that the Market has ultimate value, which it does not. The Market is not omnipotent, omniscient, or infallible. It is not a worthy object of faith in which to place our confidence and hope. The Market is created, supported, and maintained not by the hand of God but by policy choices enacted by fallible, and often self-interested, human beings.
To anoint Market Fundamentalism with the blessing of God is idolatry. It places money at the pinnacle of values and relationships, and discounts human, social, and environmental needs. What we clearly need is a public discussion of values that go beyond profit and self-interest, and an exploration of policies that can lead to a transformed economics and world.
[i] Info on Foreclosure Crisis: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-01-13/u-s-foreclosure-filings-may-jump-20-this-year-as-crisis-peaks.html
[ii]. William Stringfellow, quoted by Dr. Matthew McMahan, “Short Quotes on Wealth From Church History,” http://www.apuritansmind.com/Stewardship/ShortQuotesOnWealth.htm (accessed 3/5/07).
[v] syncretize—“to attempt to unite and harmonize especially without critical examination or logical unity
syncretism—The combination of different forms of belief or practice… definitions from Webster’s Dictionary, page 1268
[vi] Sharon Delgado, Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization (Fortress Press, 2007), page 17.