Marty and the Financial Meltdown With Friedman and Neibuhr

  Guest column by  Martin E. Marty

 “Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End in Sight,” screamed the September 18th Wall Street Journal.  The authors of the full-page story tuck in this line under the sub-head “Spreading Disease:” The U. S. financial  system “is trying to fight off a disease that is spreading…The illness seems to be overwhelming the self-healing tendencies of markets.”  

“Self-healing” is a key term here, a concept which will be exegeted, parsed, run through hermeneutical wringers, preached about, perhaps repented over, and certainly examined.  It’s too soon to see how theologians and ethicists will treat the current crisis, but one expects them to take on the concept of “self-healing.”

Like so many treatments of the market and other elements in life today, from the personal to the global, this story focuses on “self.”  The nation has gotten used to isolating elements, seeing them “go it alone,” and bragging about the results, so it should be ready to picture that “self-healing” in one sector would work.  No.  We have heard enough in recent years about how the United States could make decisions about wars in which to engage, considering only its “self.” 

Nowhere has the language of “self-generating,” “self-developing,” “self-correcting,” and “self-healing” been more regularly employed than in respect to the market as it has come to dominate in the modern free world.

Years ago, don’t ask me why, I was drawn into the moderatorship of a panel starring then-colleague Milton Friedman His main point, iterated in the face of any criticisms or questions by panelists and audience members, was that markets succeed because, “unfettered,” they are the best expression of perfect freedom.  They needed no watching or help from other spheres of life.

Challenged:  “Do you mean, Dr. Friedman, that there is no place where, say, the governments have a part to play in the market world?”  Roads!”  The confident, one-word response sounded rehearsed.  Roads have to run through private properties, subject to eminent domain.  Anything else involving “others” with the “private” world?   No, only “roads.”

Of course, not all advocates of “unfettered” and “unregulated” markets were as sure of themselves as Dr. Friedman, who was as informed and skillful a debater as I’ve ever known.  Yet for most, governments were not to play any part in regulating or monitoring markets.  Today we are hearing from many who are suddenly “born-again” advocates of some measure of regulating agencies and companies and transactions. 

The various sectors of society do have different interests and can mess each other up, but the headlines and prime time utterances this week indicate that, to give a secular translation of a “body of Christ” theme, “we are members one of another.”  We re-learn it again, too late, during this “Worst Crisis Since 1930s,” and hope for healing.

(Reinhold) Niebuhrian irony provides perspective here: As with this nation and its foreign policy, so now with the markets. We are well aware of our own virtue, knowledge, power, and security, and these are real enough to be celebrated. But we did not recognize their undersides: vice, ignorance, weakness, and insecurity, which overtook us. 

Niebuhrians quoted Psalm 2:4:  “God sits in the heavens and laughs.”  (But, added Niebuhr, God also held and holds us responsible.)  This comes close to being a sermon, so it needs a text.  Isaiah 5:8 (NRSV):  “Ah to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.”  We’ll now hear about mutuality in healing.

Martin E. Marty is Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he taught chiefly in the Divinity School for 35 years and where the Martin Marty Center has since been founded to promote “public religion” endeavors.  This column was circulated by Sightings, from the Martin Marty Center. 

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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