Market Autonomy and the “Free Markets”
Nowhere in Catholic doctrine do we find support for the absolute autonomy of the market (the idea that the market is capable of “regulating itself” without any interference from outside or above). On the contrary, St. John Paul II claimed that “the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.”
While it is legitimate to speak of “autonomy” with respect to economic activities, what is meant is always a relative autonomy, which must be circumscribed within the limits of a superior order, which is to say an ethical order:
“The Church’s social doctrine, while recognizing the market as an irreplaceable instrument for regulating the inner workings of the economic system, points out the need for it to be firmly rooted in its ethical objectives, which ensure and at the same time suitably circumscribe the space within which it can operate autonomously.”
And so we find ultimately that the so-called “free market,” a notion which concerns the particular conditions of relative economic freedom in a given political order, are always limited and directed by the needs of the political order. If we allow the relative freedom of the market to become absolutized, then we allow a legitimate good to become transmogrified into a source of evil:
“All of this can be summed up by repeating once more that economic freedom is only one element of human freedom. When it becomes autonomous, when man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him.”
We noted above that any freedom, in order to remain legitimate, must maintain a constant connection with truth and goodness. Likewise, economic freedom must be placed within the overarching context of morality.