Summary of an interview with Acton Institute President, Robert Sirico


     Globalization has its fans and foes. Many defenders of free-market economics see globalization as a sort of panacea for expanding the opportunities for increased wealth, employment, and liberty worldwide. Others, however, see it as an expression of an unjust system that favors the rich and marginalizes the poor, distorts the politics of social aid, and destroys local cultures. To examine those themes, ZENIT interviewed Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute.

     According to Fr. Sirico there are many things about Western culture that are worthy of criticism: the denigrations of human sexuality, especially women, in its media; the confusion between "having" and "being"; an inflated notion of rights along with a lessening sense of social responsibility.

     "But the problem with the ‘no-global people’ is that their criticism equates these moral and cultural weaknesses with the system of international free trade. I am not persuaded that the market  creates culture as much as it reflects and perhaps amplifies culture," said Fr. Sirico. "The process of free trade is a process whereby the values that people hold are given expression in the form of goods which are demanded and services which are supplied. To a significant extent, the culture and the values are already in place and they determine what is bought and sold. So the virtuous formation of   a culture, like the resistance to consumerism, is much more a moral enterprise than it is an economic one, and needs to be altered on that level."

     "The benefits of the process of globalization are numerous. The extension of the division of labor results in the reduction of costs for the things that people depend upon for their well-being. It enables the poorer regions of the world to more fully participate in what the Holy Father call the ‘circle of exchange,’ building an infrastructure of enterprise within their own countries, thus making those people less dependent upon political rulers within their own countries, and foreign political influences  for their well-being and economic progress. Meanwhile, it encourages interdependence among trading people in different parts of the world, tending to increase cultural awareness by interaction with people from different nations doing business with each other."

     Often the influence a market is thought to have is exaggerated. According to Fr. Sirico, "The expectation that a free economy will supply the cultural and moral formation needed for a community worthy of the human  person is misplaced. This is not a function of a market. Both the critics and  supporters of an international process of free exchange need to understand this clearly. As one  theologian has noted, ‘The market will exhibit all the shortcomings and failures that people exhibit because that is, in essence, what a market is.’"

     Fr. Sirico dismisses the anti-globalization activists contend that the division between rich and poor is growing and that the rich always get fat on the toil of the poor. "That is a popular statement but the evidence simply does not back it up," says Fr. Sirico. "The fact is that a market economy is the only known way to economic development. It is not just for the rich but for everyone. Without markets, all societies would quickly be reduced to a state of barbarism. In those places in the world where there is a state of barbarism, one finds, not surprisingly, that markets are severely restricted. The market order is not a replacement for the charitable sector, but the charitable sector has never found a greater benefactor than in liberal systems of economic exchange and enterprise."

     Studies such as one by David Dollar of the World Bank have shown a direct relationship between trade, economic growth, and increasing standards of living for the poor and all classes. These studies confirm that countries that reduce tariffs, reduce taxes, protect private property, and get their financial houses in order attract foreign investment and foster a more vibrant export market," explains Fr. Sirico.

     "This increases economic growth at home, which in turn lifts incomes of the poor, thus creating a  middle class in the developing world. It is also true that trade helps rich countries as well," says Fr. Sirico. "It is in the very nature of exchange that both parties benefit. But this is not the former benefiting at the expense of the latter." It is often claimed that economic development is directly associated with environmental degradation leading to a negative view of humanity. According to Fr. Sirico exactly the opposite is true. "When we look at developed nations, we see that their environments are much cleaner and with good reason. They have the resources to devote to cleaning their environment. So if one wants a clean and livable environment, one prerequisite is economic development."

     Fr. Sirico sees the negative view of humanity as coming from the presupposition of socialist economics which holds that the economy is static and in perpetual need of redistribution. "In this anthropological concept, every new person is seen as a threat to the well-being of the whole. That is why socialist and anti-natalists are closely aligned with the anti-globalization movement. Christian anthropology, on the other hand, believes that ‘humanity is humanity’s greatest resource.’ Solutions to real environmental problems are to be found in a system that permits human ingenuity to discover more efficient uses for resources. A free-pricing system and the protection of private property will accomplish this to a far greater extent and at a more rapid pace than will government bureaucrats."

     "The word ‘liberal’ has as its root ‘liberty’ and this has great resonance with Christianity. One might say that the liberal idea, rightly understood, is the offspring of Christianity. With the Enlightenment, came a certain distortion of this notion of the value of the human person, placing the person, not merely at the apex of creation— as the book of Genesis states—but over against God, making humanity the final arbitrator of truth and goodness, rather than the creation which uses intelligence, to discover truth that is revealed to the world, both in nature and through divine disclosure."                                                               

     "Lord Action put it well when he said that the liberty of which we speak is not the liberty to do what we want, but the freedom to do what we ought. This is an authentic Catholic approach to the liberal idea."

(From Zenit News, February 28, 2002)