"We can breathe the air of liberty only to the extent that we are ready to bear the burden of moral responsibility associated with it." -Wilhelm Roepke
"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." -John Adams
It's been a rough couple of years for the free market in America. As Americans on Main Street struggle to hang on in the face of great discouragement and uncertainty, we are continually reminded of the extent to which greed and recklessness on Wall Street precipitated a recession that adversely affects us all. And just when it seemed like it couldn't get any worse, new information has recently emerged indicating that financial giant Goldman Sachs' role in the financial crisis of 2008 may have been even worse than originally thought.
This month, the Securities and Exchange Commission has filed suit against Goldman Sachs, alleging that the investment bank gamed the system by teaming with a prominent hedge fund to design a portfolio of securities guaranteed to fail, leaving the fund with huge profits and their investors holding an empty bag. Not surprisingly (and some speculate, not accidentally), this news has dramatically exacerbated the breathless push for increased regulation of the financial industry.
Senator Chris Dodd (D – CT) is leading the charge with legislation that he insists would protect Americans from the kind of fraud allegedly perpetrated by Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street behemoths. Senator Dodd and the majority of his fellow Democrats are united in their certainty that regulation is the best way to deter unscrupulous business practices. Republicans and some conservatives have expressed skepticism toward Dodd's plan; and despite what many in on the Left would presume, this is not because of the Republican party's reputation as a shill for Big Business (Democrats were actually the largest recipient of Goldman Sachs' largesse in the 2008 election cycle).
What's so great about the "free" market and why is it worth preserving? And if regulation isn't the answer to Wall Street's excesses, what is?
The value of the free market is that it both reflects and reinforces America's founding principles. No other means of human exchange honors the liberty, dignity and creativity of the individual the way that the free market does. For the marketplace to remain truly free, however, it must be undergirded by certain values. Its participants must be persons of integrity and honesty, and must hold themselves accountable to each other or else risk losing their place in the market. A marketplace dominated by cheats, liars and hucksters is no market at all, and an economy driven by firms "too big to fail" is not an economy where an ordered, moral liberty can flourish.
James Madison famously stated that if men were angels, government wouldn't be necessary. Clearly, we're not angels, and government is necessary, as are reasonable laws and regulations. But the necessary conditions for a truly humane economy cannot, and should not, be maintained by government alone; they must be rooted, as John Adams said, in the values of the hearth and the pulpit.
Conservatives don't want a value-free market place; we want a marketplace that is informed by values like honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability. If Americans are unwilling or unable to live up to this standard of conduct, however, we must be prepared to have our freedoms taken away from us one financial crisis, and one regulatory measure, at a time. The choice is ours.