Trent Beattie, National Catholic Register

January 6, 2022

The Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg promotes free markets as a means for genuine human development

May 20 is the feast of St. Bernardine of Siena, a 15th-century Franciscan priest. The fact that he cared for the sick, especially those suffering from the plague, doesn’t come as a surprising course of action from a Franciscan, nor does the fact that he preached against luxury and immodest clothing. However, many people are unaware that St. Bernardine endorsed free markets.

The humble Franciscan knew the importance of personal initiative, identifying four gifts that the successful entrepreneur would make use of: efficiency, responsibility, diligence and risk-taking.

Despite his rejection of excess, St. Bernardine supported the right to private property, one of the topics addressed in his book On Contracts and Usury.

None of this comes as a surprise to Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He has been teaching about the morality of free markets for years. Australian-born, Gregg earned a doctorate in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford in 1998. He has since spoken around the world and has written numerous books, the most recent being Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing.

Gregg, who currently lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., with his wife and daughter, recently took time to share economic insights with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.

How did you first become interested in economics?

I become interested in economics in an indirect manner. My initial entryway into the topic was natural-law theory. Through reading St. Thomas Aquinas and some of the later scholastic thinkers, it became very clear that, for hundreds of years, much natural-law thinking concerned matters that we would regard as “economic” today: questions such as the nature and ends of money, the justice of economic exchange, how prices are determined, the role of the state in the economy, etc.

One reason for this is that capitalism first developed in the medieval world — which was, after all, a Catholic world. The other reason is that, in thinking through such questions, scholastic writers had to get to know the world of commerce, money, business and trade in ways that few Christian thinkers had previously done. And what you find in these thinkers are very clear anticipations of many, if not most, of the key insights that were contained in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

This in turn made me wonder if it would be possible to re-integrate the discipline of economics into Catholic thought — not to produce a “Catholic economics,” since there is no such thing, just as there is no “Catholic physics” — but, rather, so that the insights of economics could inform Catholic moral and social reflection, while economics could become reacquainted with the full truth about man that we find in natural law and Divine Revelation.

How did you get started with the Acton Institute?

It became obvious to me in the mid-1990s that Acton was truly unique, inasmuch as it was trying to re-create that conversation between economics and the Christian faith, and that one of the mediums through which it was doing so was natural-law thinking.

That is extremely difficult work, because many Catholics and other Christians are intensely suspicious of economics, seeing it as simply applied utilitarianism, while many economists operate upon highly secular assumptions about the world — assumptions that run quite counter to the Christian vision of the person — and which aren’t always that friendly to convinced religious believers.

Yet both the Church and the world of economics certainly need each other. The Church needs to take seriously the insights of economics, especially when it comes to addressing poverty, while economics as a discipline needs people to remind it of all the moral and spiritual realities that don’t fit well into the models employed by most mainstream economists. So when I was offered a chance to work at Acton, I was very happy to accept it.

You recently got back from Rome, where Acton conducted a conference and where you were able to attend the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. What were those experiences like?

It’s hard to describe them in a few words. Obviously, there was a wonderful sense of giving thanks for the lives of sanctity led by these two recent popes. Then there was the very real experience of being reminded of the universality of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and the People of God.

In terms of the conference held by Acton, it focused on the theme of the relationship between economic freedom and religious liberty. Among the speakers, we had Cardinal [Joseph] Zen of Hong Kong — a man who lives in the midst of a city built on economic freedom but who also is very conscious of the suffering of the Church in China. A number of people remarked to me after the event that it was one of the best conferences in Rome that they had attended for a long time. When I asked why, the answer was the same: The conference pushed people to think about the indivisible character of freedom in ways that simply aren’t common today in our age of hyper-specialization.

St. Bernardine of Siena was a Franciscan priest who extensively defended the business entrepreneur. Do you find that most Catholics are unaware of his teachings on the free market?

Most Catholics are unaware of the broad Catholic intellectual and institutional contributions to the development of market economies in general, especially during their early phases in the Middle Ages. Too often, we buy into the “Dark Ages” mythology about this period. So the fact that St. Bernardine of Siena — and many other Franciscans — were among the first to grasp the importance of the entrepreneur as a key catalyst for economic growth, or that they made clear and important distinctions between money-as-sterile and money-as-capital, get missed alongside all the other things that happened in the so-called “Dark Ages.”

I also think that many people have an imaginary understanding of St. Francis and the Franciscan orders that followed in his wake. They weren’t all poor mendicants. Lots of them were very intellectually serious men who lived, worked and often taught in urban centers, and thus experienced what some scholars have called the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages. They didn’t try to resist it. Rather, they sought to understand it so that they could guide the faithful in the “how” of living a Christian life in the midst of this new world.

Who are some of the other saints who have explained how free markets are conducive to virtue?

There is an excellent book by the Australian priest and theologian Father Anthony G. Percy called Entrepreneurship in the Catholic Tradition. He details the fact that many of the Church Fathers had high praise for merchants and underscored the importance of commerce, both in terms of the material wealth it produced and also the opportunities for all-round human flourishing that become available through business activity.

Those Church Fathers include St. Augustine, St. John Cassian, St. Leo the Great and St. John of Damascus. Aquinas also had good things to say about merchants and the potential to cultivate particular virtues in business. Now, keep in mind, they also warned of the very real temptations that exist in a market place and commerce more generally. But to say they were somehow “anti-commerce” is simply untrue.

What are some of the biggest economic misconceptions you’ve found that Catholics have?

To my mind, the misconceptions of Catholics are no different from those of most other people.

One of them is the notion that wealth is a fixed amount. This is called the “zero-sum game” fallacy. It implies that one person can only become wealthy by other people becoming poor. Entrepreneurship and the right institutions in place (especially the rule of law) are the factors that nullify that myth.

Another misconception is how the economic value of something is determined. It’s not through the labor that creates an object or service. Rather, it’s through the subjective value that is attached to the good or service by hundreds of thousands of people in a market place. The price of a book I write is not determined by how many hours I spent working on it, but by what people are willing to pay for it. And what they are willing to pay for it is determined by how much they want it compared to all the other books, services and goods they want.

Then there is the notion that free trade can only benefit the wealthy or wealthy countries. Again, if you look at the stories of how nations escape poverty, it’s not through subsidies, protectionism and closed markets. Rather, it’s through entering what St. John Paul the Great called the circles of exchange and embracing institutions such as rule of law.

The whole question regarding economic misconceptions is a fascinating one — so much so that we even have a course at Acton’s summer university program on that topic.  We address and correct common economic fallacies, and this is something that many people — Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, evangelical and Jewish — find extremely helpful.

You mentioned the annual Acton University event coming up in June. What are your expectations for this year’s installment?

We will have more than 1,000 people in attendance from dozens of countries throughout the world — among them clergy, seminary professors, seminarians, business leaders, economists, theologians, philosophers — in fact, anyone who wants to apply for the event and is accepted.

They will be participating in dozens of courses in theology, philosophy, economics and history — conducted by faculty members from all over the world and in a way that allows for one-on-one discussions.

I suppose that, at least for me, it’s the genuinely international flavor of the event that is most striking, but also the intellectual seriousness of the program. By that, I don’t mean that it is inaccessible to anyone except specialists. Rather, I mean that it’s not what I call a “fluff event,” in which the emphasis is on style and talking points rather than substance and serious engagement with ideas. The material and ideas are certainly presented in an accessible way — but we don’t dumb things down. And, judging from the feedback we get, that is precisely what people want from such a program.

We would love for you to receive our newsletter and update emails. Please subscribe here.