Free Market Idolatry

The famous mark of the beast in the Book of Revelation had a specific economic application. Satan’s appointed “beast, coming out of the earth,” “forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.” It was a stratagem of economic marginalization: only certified worshipers of the beast could participate in economic transactions. But it was more than that for John, the author of Revelation, who “calls for wisdom” about the meaning of the number. “For it is man’s number,” he concluded, and “his number is 666.”

As Austin Farrer demonstrates in A Rebirth of Images (1949), his mind-bending literary analysis of Revelation, the Old Testament story of King Solomon was John’s primary source for the number of the beast. In the ancient narrative’s downward spiral, depicted in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, Solomon obtains an income of 666 talents of gold (about $300 million today) in tribute from his subjects. Thereafter, he breaks all the traditional rules of Israelite kingship. He takes foreign wives, he builds a great throne with a gold footstool, and he amasses horses and chariots and much else—all necessarily at the expense of his people. Disastrous civil war follows his death, provoked by his son Rehoboam’s vehement curse: “My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”

There are few biblical echoes in Michael Sandel’s critique of economics and markets, which he describes as an “imperial domain.” But Revelation’s idea that, in an unequal society, economic life is begotten of evil, not good, is far from irrelevant. Although his catalog of examples illustrating how the “logic of buying and selling . . . increasingly governs the whole of life” is practically utopian compared to the imagery of Revelation, the sellers’ and the winners’ lack of compunction is eerily the same, as are the trends in inequality, at least in relative terms. One could add to Sandel’s human organ markets many examples with even scarier implications: marketing to children, the narrowing of educational opportunity, or, as Sandel himself so carefully observes in The Case Against Perfection, the emerging markets for surrogacy, other forms of assisted reproduction, and (soon enough) routine reproductive enhancement.

Making money, formerly an exclusive realm of cosmic evil, is now ‘doing God’s work.’

Sandel’s critique is part-Rawlsian (against the unfairness of markets) and part-Aristotelian (against the corrosion of non-market virtue). Rawlsian fairness does not quite speak to the kind of economic exclusion and overturning one would emphasize from a Christian point of view, entailing painful judgment against the rich and a new heaven and earth in which the last shall be first. But the market corrosion of virtue is also a paramount Christian theme, particularly in the writings of the early Church Fathers. It is possibly richer and more empowering than Sandel’s critique of market corruption because it adds the dimensions of idolatry and “transvaluation.”

Sandel sees a world in which markets increasingly “corrupt, dissolve, or displace nonmarket norms,” that is, the expectations, customs, and interdictions that shape a common moral life and provide a moral structure for the common good. But his spatial metaphor of “crowding out” obscures the true depths of market corruption. When Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein can even try to defend what he does as “God’s work,” the problem is not a crowding out of morals but their transvaluation: making money, formerly an exclusive realm of cosmic evil (or at least a cause of crippling moral diseases among the affluent), is now “doing God’s work.”

Or consider “In God We Trust,” on the money in our wallets. Is there any doubt that money, more than God, is what we trust? Faith in money is in the very nature of market societies and essential to all but a handful of relationships in most people’s lives. And God apparently approves of this, or at least he is present in all the transactions. Among presidents, only Theodore Roosevelt dared to call out God’s branding on our money, which, in a 1907 letter, he declared “dangerously close to sacrilege.” In his nomination speech at the 1912 Progressive Party convention, he did not mince words about the evil designs of “financial despotism” and how it must be challenged. “We stand at Armageddon,” he concluded, “and we Battle for the Lord!”

Sandel’s important project on the moral limits of markets arrives at a moment that profoundly illustrates just how marginal such a critique has become. When Wall Street collapsed, the moral validity of market forces somehow emerged newly strengthened. This would be impossible in a time when non-market values had a part in the structure of power. Instead, we can see how religious imagination has filled the absence of non-market power, with non-market values commonly expressed in religious, sometimes apocalyptic, terms.