A bakery owner, Mary, is excited about her new business and is ready to find the locale and serve tasty bread and pastries in a community beginning to thrive after years of neglect. As she begins, she is surrounded by amplified voices concerned that she is fair to workers, maximizes profits, and uses her wealth for good, ensuring she practices neighborly love. In addition to business mentors, her pastor, and local officials, where can she turn to make sure she is honoring Christ and loving her neighbor well? Church history might be a surprising answer, but it is where we find thoughtful women and men strove to balance economic wisdom and liberty with the common good, private enterprise with public ethics, while rooting practical wisdom in Christian virtues.
Like theologian Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas and “the just price” of economics
Thomas Aquinas is the “Angelic Doctor” and his theology is foundational and normative for Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. Orthodox and Protestant believers have benefitted from Thomas’ synthesis of philosophy and theology. Aquinas’ outstanding apologetics, with their empirical reasoning and clarity of expression, remain a vital source of wisdom for all Christians. He is famous for both his Summa Theologica — his multi-volume masterpiece of doctrine — and his Summa Contra Gentiles — arguments defending the Christian faith in dialogue with Jews, Muslims, and skeptics.
Aquinas brought his masterful Christian mind to issues of economic wisdom, especially the notion of the “just price” in trade and transactions, writing during an expansive historical moment, with 13th century Italian city states emerging as financial hubs and Western Europe awakening from her economic and social slumber. Aquinas saw economics as the fruit of a virtuous life lived in community. The needs of the community take precedence over production and consumption, especially once basic needs are met. He does not, however, condemn commerce and profit, per se. Community flourishing benefits from expansion of opportunity. He defends both private property and the common good. His language is remarkably modern, and believers of varying philosophical and political persuasions quote him at length.
Neighborly love, economically
For Aquinas, it is good that buyers and sellers negotiate and settle on a price agreeable to each side: this is the market or natural price. The market price is the just price if the buyer and seller are honest and not trying to take advantage of each other. The ethical problem arises when there are dishonest participants, especially when the civil law allows or encourages such dishonesty. A just price should reflect the worth or value of a good or service. How is such value determined? Usually quite subjectively, hence marketplace haggling. Aquinas affirms just prices vary over time and place. In his writings, Aquinas understands the ethics of buying and selling as one part of a virtuous life.
The laws and customs of a society can either help or hinder the pursuit of virtue. There can never be a “just price” between evil people with evil goals. The moral character of the buyers and sellers is more important than the act of buying and selling itself. He leaves room for subjective valuations of the just price and legitimate human freedom, these are inseparable from concerns for humankind’s eternal destiny. For Aquinas and many thinkers to follow until the late 19th century, economics is a subset of moral philosophy. Only in the last century and a half has the “science” of economics been severed from its moral moorings. Aquinas saw humans as political beings, with natural fulfillment only in community with others and with an axiomatic concern for justice.
The virtuous person is fair in all his dealings, including economic ones, giving to each his/her due and perhaps even more. One cannot be virtuous on his own; she or he needs friends who also love virtue, good laws and customs, and, above all, God’s grace. In today’s conversations, his ideas will not fit in the ideological boxes polarizing much of our world.
Seeking community flourishing throughout history
Applying Aquinas’ insights in our contemporary global and local communities yields much wisdom for entrepreneurs, customers, government and civil society. Private property is foundational to wealth building but must integrate into the common good. Profits are essential for sustainable enterprises, with workers and customers treated fairly. Government is helpful for ensuring fairness, while not over-regulating commerce.
In many ways Aquinas is a historical precursor to current thoughts on, “the economics of mutuality” where people (owners and workers, shareholders, and customers), the planet (sound environmental policies) and profits (a good return and resources for expansion and public and private generosity) are all in view.In our current culture of ideological polarization, his work offers some universal ethics and particular points of wisdom that can help all flourish. Mary can go “back to the future” and find history illuminating a good path forward for her bakery.