I have been thinking a lot about the way the Republican party is debating health care for the sick, food for the poor, access to education, and a host of other government programs. The argument is always based on what produces the most value.
That seems harmless enough. We want bang for our buck. We want to spend our money well. We want to be good stewards of scarce resources. The problem is, though, that the only kind of value we are talking about is economic value.
But reducing all our arguments to economic value turns the market into a god. The market values only economic value: it recognizes no other kind. It is very, very good at measuring economic value, and this is what makes it effective in distributing resources -- investments go to companies that produce the most economic value, companies that produce little or no real economic value find their resources are re-directed to places where they will produce greater economic value. If your measure of success is material wealth, then economic value is the only thing you need worry about, and the market can indeed be trusted to meet all our needs. There is no need for any other measure,and no need to limit its ability to direct resources toward what it values most.
Most people, however, would argue that there is more to life than economic value. Most of us would agree that economic value does not produce meaning, which although it has little to no economic value, has great spiritual value. Most people would also say that human beings have value beyond their economic value -- that we are worth more than the total of the goods we are able to produce. We recognize that feeding hungry children and caring for the old and sick has value that has nothing to do with its economic value. Because it produces little economic value, the market says it is a worthless activity and the resources would be better used elsewhere. This is why we do not simply put down the elderly who are no longer able to work, or disabled children who will never hold a job, and why we instinctively recoil from any suggestion that it would be a reasonable thing to do. We know that human beings have spiritual value far in excess of their economic value. And most of us know instinctively that there is deep spiritual value in feeding hungry children and caring for the old and sick, and that not to do so impoverishes us in ways the market cannot measure.
I am not sure when and how we came to cease speaking about things that have value beyond the economic. I’m not sure when we stopped talking about how good things are merely because they are beautiful, or wise, or speak to us of God’s divine Light. I’m not sure when we started determining whether something was worth doing by its economic value, by what it would add to our bank account or the nation’s GDP.
What I do know is that if we are to avoid spiritual bankruptcy, we need to reclaim the language of value away from the market, to name the highest good in something other than dollar value. We need to acknowledge that while the market is very useful for distributing resources for economic growth, it is not God, and placing it in God's place is idolatry. Caring for the old and sick and feeding hungry children has little economic value. But our faith traditions say that doing so is doing the very will of God, and is in fact the meaning of life. Are we willing to sacrifice economic value for the sake of those things which offer meaning and spiritual value? What will determine our greatest good -- the market, or God?