Moral Ambiquity and Economics

This post by Dignan nicely illustrates the moral, umm, complexity of Christian conservatives (though I wouldn’t classify Dignan as one of those folks, because, while I don’t agree with his politics, I think they are fairly developed from a Christian perspective).

The subject of his discussion is the much-maligned corporate whipping boy, Wal-Mart. It’s much easier to catalog their ills than it is to defend their practices, and even Dignan admits he doesn’t like them, but he defends them, as free market capitalists are wont to do. He rightly concludes:

On the whole, I am very unimpressed by criticisms of Wal-Mart wages and impact upon local communities. It is entirely within the power of the people of this country to bring Wal-Mart to its knees. Yet, Wal-Mart continues to grow and prosper. What does that tell us about the choices that America is making?

But it’s here that I have to cry foul. Dignan is right — it is incumbent upon consumers within a free market economy to effect change by using their power as consumers. We very well could put Wal-Mart out of business, but that requires a group effort, something that many conservatives abhor. There are many churches that have tried to wield economic power this way, and they may have been at least slightly effective, but I think this sort of action still misses the point. Conservatives (especially Christians) refuse to judge economic behavior in the name of the Free Market. Sure, they will, as Dignan does, point out the perhaps Wal-Mart doesn’t treat its employees well, but, they’ll say, those people can work elsewhere. And, of course, they are right. But, I believe that is beside the point.

Conservatives (and conservative Christians, especially) are very willing to use the government to intervene when a particular behavior ruffles their moral sensibilities (see homosexuality and homosexual marriage). They believe that people cannot make the proper decisions about these matters, and therefore the government, in the interest of the greater good of society, should step in. All bets are off, however, when the subject is economics (except in the cases of monopolies and massive corporate corruption). The market will take care of itself, they say. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. If you don’t like your employer, work elsewhere.

I find it a bit hypocritical that conservative Christians are willing to turn the other way on economic matters, yet when the subject is homosexuality and gay marriage, the government has to intervene. Such faith in the invisible hand of the free market seems almost idolatrous. I am not necessarily promoting heavy government intervention in the marketplace (though I just might be), but I am promoting Christians being more vocal about issues of economic justice. I would like to hear Christians being critical of corporations rather than consumers (as Dignan does). Again, Dignan isn’t completely wrong — people do need to make better choices in their lives — but the blame needs to be distributed fairly. Fighting for economic justice is more than simply educating consumers.