In his latest column, Patrick Deneen argues that Hobby Lobby’s suit against the Federal government is both a little absurd and hypocritical. While the Big Box store is fighting for religious liberty in this particular case, its business practices (price-cutting, the use of overseas manufacturers, the displacement of “traditional communities”), Deneen argues, are immoral:

As Polanyi describes, economic exchange so ordered placed a priority on the main ends of social and religious life—the sustenance of community order and flourishing of families within that order. The understanding of an economy based upon the accumulated calculations of self-maximizing individuals was largely non-existent, and a “market” was understood to be a part of the whole, an actual physical place within that social order, not an autonomous, even theoretical space for the exchange of abstracted utility maximers.

Polanyi describes how the replacement of this economy required concerted and often violent reshaping of the existing life-world, most often by elite economic and State actors disrupting and displacing traditional communities and practices. It also required not only the separation of markets from social and religious contexts, and with that move the “individuation” of people, but their acceptance that their labor and nature were nothing more than commodities subject to price mechanisms, a transformative way of considering people and nature alike in newly utilitarian terms. Yet market liberalism required treating both people and natural resources as these “fictitious commodities,” as material for use in industrial processes, in order to disassociate markets from morals and “re-train” people to think of themselves first and foremost as individuals separate from nature and each other. As Polanyi pithily described this transformation, “laissez-faire was planned.”

In short, it’s not just Hobby Lobby that is immoral, it is modern day capitalism that is immoral. Perhaps I’m misreading that, but I don’t know how else to make sense of “market liberalism required treating both people and natural resources as…material for use in industrial processes.”

I enjoy Patrick’s columns, and maybe he will offer some further comment at some point, but I’m skeptical of this particular argument.

First, it does not follow that we “lose” even if Hobby Lobby wins because it is an immoral agent (if I grant Deneen’s point regarding Hobby Lobby). Lots of evil agents have unwillingly been forces of good in the world. Deneen’s point is that the case will do nothing to curtail Hobby Lobby’s immoral business practices, but that’s not what this case is about, and to suggest that it does not really matter whether Hobby Lobby wins or loses because they will continue their bad practices minimizes the obvious importance of this case for religious freedom in the United States.

Second, is modern day capitalism immoral? Do modern day markets necessarily destroy community, divorce exchange of goods and services from morality, and objectify both workers and buyers? There’s no doubt they can do this, but do they do this without exception? I’m not so sure.

Let me say that I certainly think conservatives should stop viewing markets as inherently good and turning a blind eye to greed cloaked in arguments on the morality of efficiency. That said, I don’t think it requires individuals to objectify others, even if that is a temptation, as I’ve noted elsewhere.

Rather, it seems to me that markets are tools that can be used for both good and evil. Modern day capitalism, for example, has reduced poverty and improved education in the third world (both of which can be the handmaidens of a more moral life), and one could argue that it has, in certain respects, strengthened families through the elimination of child labor, reduced working hours, and so forth. Of course, it can also encourage materialism and cause individuals to think of relationships primarily as a transaction. But I’m not convinced—and perhaps my disagreement is ultimately with Polanyi—that it necessarily does these things.

If it’s not inherently immoral, is modern capitalism worse than what it replaced? It may be true that modern day capitalism, more so than the capitalism of yesteryear, encourages individuals to be “rationally calculating” and to view “economic activity in terms of price…in ways that obscure any connections between what is purchased and its implications for our communities.”

But even here Deneen’s argument seems to require a superficial distinction between modern markets and a folksy capitalism of yore when there was no “separation of markets from social and religious contexts.” When was this time? What was this economy? In Shakespeare’s day, fishmongers were reputed cheats—so much so the word became a euphemism for a pimp. And while some 19th century mom-and-pop stores may have helped bring people together, others were as cutthroat as your 21st century venture capitalist. Of course, it may be more difficult to cut the throats of people you know, but it can also be more tempting when you dislike them. Today’s markets are certainly more anonymous, but also less petty and less likely to be used for personal vindictiveness.

Deneen remarks that no economy is neutral, but that does not mean we need to score each as either “moral” or “immoral.” I think it’s more accurate to say that most market economies are a composite of both good and evil elements that can push agents in one way or another, depending on the tool, the circumstances, and the individual (or corporation of individuals) making the decision.

So how has Hobby Lobby used market capitalism? I don’t know enough to say. I respect their decision to close on Sundays, though Deneen is certainly right that neither this nor the fact that it is owned by a family and plays Christian music makes it either moral or Christian.