Market Harms and Market Benefits

Theology of Money, part 2

In some realms of life, we mix market value (quantifiable in dollar amounts) and nonmarket (nonquantifiable) value. The non-profit sector, the public sector, and the caring professions represent a mix of measurable value – measured by its price and costs – with intangible, immeasurable values. The trend has been toward market thinking becoming increasingly ascendant.

Where Market Values Become Problematic

Take the nonprofit sector – paradigmatically, or what used to be a paradigm -- the hospital. We have seen the rise of the for-profit hospital, replacing the traditional hospital that was nonprofit. The nonprofit sector, of course, was never divorced from market realities. Hospitals always had to meet payroll, buy and maintain a building and equipment. What they didn't pay, however, were profits to shareholders. As market creep moved into healthcare, market logic said that everything was about the money. Market logic carried us from, “the hospital has to bring in money to carry out its mission,” to “therefore people can invest in the hospital's ability to bring in money and reap dividends.” That’s a step we might have done better to resist.

The difference may not be visible on the surface, but a difference there is between:
  • The hospital’s purpose is caring for people and money is a means to that end,
  • The hospital’s purpose is to make money, and caring for people is the means to that end.
When it comes to my auto mechanic, I’m OK with a purely market orientation. She fixes my car; I pay her. We’re both getting all that we want and humanly need from that relationship. But something is lost when fixing my body is seen the same way as fixing my car – something about honoring my personhood as an end in itself not a means only.

The nonprofit sector exists because of that human need that certain kinds of relationship have an element of nonmarket immeasurable value mixed in with the market-measurable value. With each shrinkage of the nonprofit sector, we as a people become just a little more cynical, a little more hardened, a little less in awe of the unquantifiable sacredness of ourselves and each other.

Markets Sometimes a Moral Force

A theology of money would also acknowledge the great good of markets, which includes not merely economic good, but moral good. When people buy and sell from each other, they don’t have to fight each other for stuff. Between nations, the rise of markets has reduced the temptation to go to war. That’s a moral good.

In the market, it doesn’t matter if we agree on anything besides price. Your ethnicity, your religion, your crazy political opinions don’t matter. You pay the money, you get the groceries. Through markets, the human species learned at last how to engage cooperatively with people we would otherwise despise. We learned to set aside the differences that divided us and just “do business.”

When the US passed fair housing legislation in the 1960s, that was a triumph of justice through an insistence that market logic prevail. If your house is for sale or rent, you may not refuse it to someone based on race. Market logic, which cares only about whether the asking price can be met, must trump racial prejudice, we said – and that was an important step toward justice.

In some areas, we need still need more market logic, not less. Market logic doesn’t care about whether a construction worker, or an agricultural worker, or any worker, happened to be born north or south of a line some generals and politicians drew in the sand across the southwest desert over 150 years ago. But our immigration policies skew that market logic, and they are wrong to do so.

These are some of the issues to think through in developing a theology of money. Where does money belong? Where it does it not belong? Where does it do well to mix with nonmarket values?

From Theology to Spirituality

And the spirituality of money goes to what you do with yours. If spirituality is about anything, it’s about waking up and paying attention – noticing our own lives, for which the first step is noticing how often we aren’t noticing our own lives. Spirituality is attention, and attention includes attention to money.

NEXT: Practices for Paying Attention to Money

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Theology of Money"
See also
Part 1: Erosion of the Nonmarket
Part 3: Practices for Paying Attention to Money

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