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James T. Summerhays is Senior Executive Editor with BYU Studies Quarterly. His views do not necessarily represent those of the BYU Studies editorial board or its sponsoring institutions.

The great advantage of market forces is their moral neutrality. The great disadvantage of market forces is their moral neutrality.

In former economic times, many more aspects of life were considered morally sacred, so sacred that a price could not be placed on them. Today, it seems that market forces are making it possible to buy anything in the world-as long as the price is right. The problem is, by definition, placing a price on something formerly considered priceless automatically cheapens it.

Considering recent history, our enthusiasm for the ineffable power of free markets is understandable. The Cold War during the 1960s and 1970s was something of a vast experiment between two superpowers. Which economic system would win the day, central control or free markets? With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the answer to that question seemed obvious.

Beginning in the 1980s, a new era of market confidence and market deregulation swept through the United States. No other economic system proved as efficient in producing, trading, and consuming goods and services. Helped by advances in technology, no other economy in recorded history was so effective at generating so much prosperity. A completely new phenomenon seemed to arise: a good portion of the masses were living life styles formerly reserved for the rich. With the abuses of human capital during the industrial revolution only a distant memory, a laissez-faire corporate economy could do no wrong, or so it seemed.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, everybody was getting in on the act. Using the United States as a blueprint, nations throughout the world refashioned their economic systems to allow for more freedom. This cornered many of them into reforming their political systems to allow for more freedoms as well. While we were justifiably marveling at the mighty political influence that simple economics could wield in creating new democracies, a problem was developing behind the scenes.

The problem? Market forces were slowly overshadowing spiritual and moral forces. Capitalism seemed to be informing our worldview in areas having little to do with money. Why? Because the realms where money did not change hands were shrinking.

Today, free markets, so very valuable and desirable in their place, are encroaching into family life, community life, religious life, public life, and even life itself. Free trade no longer applies only to the exchange of material goods. In an ironic twist, the free market economy sometimes acts rather imperial, looking for new markets to colonize, even if that means incentivizing people to sell advertising space in their personal lives (think reality TV) or on their bodies (recently, a mom was paid $10,000 to tattoo an online casino’s website on her forehead).

In modern life such examples abound, where placing a price on something formerly considered priceless automatically cheapens it. Consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where private contractors actually outnumber U.S. military combatants. It doesn’t matter how necessary such an arrangement might be; to civilians back home, it all looks suspect. With big money involved, the citizenry easily becomes jaded. Something must be rotten in our motives for war, they reason, because private contractors are benefitting-to the tune of billions of dollars-from a publicly-funded endeavor. Such an assessment may be completely unfair. But the fact still remains that when we fight a war to protect our homes, our families, our precious freedoms, the meaning of citizenship takes on a certain sacredness; when we merely outsource the war effort, all sense of honor disappears.

The war is just one example demonstrating how market rationales have the uncanny ability to remove all moral spark from public life. Perhaps the majority of us prefer it that way. After all, markets do not judge our demands; they simply supply them. The market does not discriminate and ask if certain demands for goods and services are more noble than others. It simply asks that we be a little louder in expressing our preferences-whether noble, ignoble, or deplorable-so that it can supply those preferences more efficiently.

If consenting adults are willing to pay for something that is clearly harmful, say, illicit drugs, and other consenting adults are willing to supply the harmful drug, pure markets forces will merely calculate supply and demand and come up with a price. The market will not calculate the moral cost. We, as individual consumers in a free market economy, get to choose what’s moral or immoral. For that reason, we tend to love free market reasoning. Like a well-trained puppy, it is always eager to play, always loyal and obedient to our demands, and never judges us.

But when we weren’t looking, that cute and cuddly little puppy grew into a wolf.

Our hesitation to combine moral and spiritual considerations with our love for free markets has exacted a price far above what we bargained for. By side-stepping moral and spiritual considerations from public policy, we have left a vacuum in the market of ideas, and that vacuum has been filled by the market of commerce, in all its amoralglory. Hence, market triumphalism has pushed traditional moral philosophy into a lonely corner.

Few areas remain where moral considerations prevail over markets. Buying and selling human beings as commodities in a slave trade is still considered a reprehensible, dehumanizing practice. Until recently, governments almost universally assumed that the formation of a family within the bonds of marriage was considered a priceless benefit to society, and they vigorously sought to keep market forces away from that relationship. Governments would not allow sexual relations between a man and woman to be bought and sold as a commodity. Sexual union built on moral considerations such as marriage, love, and lifelong commitment-that’s the stuff that made the world go round.

At least that was once the consensus. Supreme Court rulings on pornography have effectively deregulated this and made it legal for a man or woman to sell their sexual acts as a commodity to third-party viewers. While legal experts can argue whether this should be considered prostitution or not, one fact remains-what was once considered priceless now has a price attached. The result? An automatic cheapening. Few people, not even pornographers, would argue that sex is considered more sacred today than it was fifty years ago, before sex became a market-driven multibillion-dollar industry.

Today, what were formally public trusts are being outsourced to private enterprise. For-profit insurance companies unduly influence how doctors are allowed to treat their patients. Private security officers outnumber public police forces by almost double. Hospitals and prisons are increasingly being privatized. Private advertising is now found in public schools and on public television, politely identified as “underwriters.”Companies market a wide array of “assisted reproduction” methods, where those looking to get pregnant pay thousands for the “designer genes” of athletes. Fire departments, the icons of public service and sacrifice during the 9/11 attacks, are in rare cases being privatized-and if you don’t pay your monthly premium, they let your house burn down. Even Obamacare requires uninsured citizens to buy private insurance if they opt out of the public option.

It’s hard to tell if such a policy should be considered primarily socialistic by nature, or a coup for private insurance companies.

In sum, the free market is often viewed and employed as the most efficient means to deliver education, health care, procreation, national defense, disaster relief, criminal justice, and public safety. The privatizing climate we observe today didn’t even exist under Reagan, at least not to this extent.

Perhaps some of these areas can be reasonably privatized, but as long as the possibility of substantial personal or corporate profits are involved in protecting domestic tranquility, the public will inevitably get suspicious. For instance, anyone transnational pharmaceutical company arguably has saved just as many lives as the American Red Cross, but the for-profit “Big Pharma” is viewed as having unsavory ulterior motives, while the latter nonprofit enterprise is respected as a virtuous public service, where we all proudly share in the responsibility. Of course, with public opinion, things are never perfectly clear cut, but the overall principle seems sound-even with current cynicism running so high, I can’t remember the last public protest against the American Red Cross.

The financial crisis and real estate meltdown of 2008 has shaken confidence in market forces, casting a shroud of uncertainty over the capacity of markets to efficiently allocate risk. It also suggests that market captains lost their moral bearings, and that somehow the ship needs to be righted. Problem is, the country is almost perfectly divided on which set of morals will right the ship, and so we slowly drift off course. But we can’t stand divided forever, especially with trillions in debt hanging over our heads. If we don’t make some decisions, the market will make those decisions for us, and it likely won’t be looking out for our best interests-it will be looking after its own bottom line.

Some say unbridled greed led to wild risk-taking in the banking system, and a new set of regulations guarding against such avarice will protect us from another crisis in the future. But greed has a way of making an end-run around new regulations, and overall levels of greed are very hard to control. We can try to start now, but it is doubtful that humans suddenly became less genetically predisposed to greediness starting with the collapse of 2008.

Certainly the Wall Street gimmies were a major player in the financial crisis. But like the poor, greedy people have always been with us. We must look to where things actually changed. There was likely no sudden increase in natural greed, but there was a change in the outreach-the outreach of market values into areas of life that traditionally have relied upon considerations having little or nothing to do with markets. To resist this new game of market creep, we need to decide where the market is an appropriate player-and where it simply should not be on the field. It is not just a matter of regulating markets but a matter of asking ourselves, Are there areas where markets simply should not exist?

For example, the last century has seen religion turn to market forces as never before. While televangelists and megachurches may bring in the crowds, such market-driven spectacle likely has the effect of producing a net increase of cynicism toward religion among U.S. citizens. When ministers are profiting by the millions in the name of religion, it is very hard to look beyond that little number with seven digits and assume that they are practicing religion only out of the goodness of their hearts. Again, profits have a great potential to sour the moral vitality of an enterprise.

Despite their reputation as a corporate religion, Mormons have long understood this principle. The Church does involve itself in various market-driven business enterprises but never by using religious donations. Like Jesus driving out the money-changers from the temple, their policy is extremely strict against a market-driven religious experience. Clergy are not allowed to reap any sort of profit from religious donations-in fact, they are not paid at all. My father was a bishop within the Mormon faith, and he explained it this way: if a bishop were to use members’ religious donations for private gain, that bishop would be promptly excommunicated. When Mormon faithful pay a religious tithing, it is used for religious purposes-missionary work, disaster relief, humanitarian aid, temples and churches, seminaries and education, and so forth. To do otherwise, they believe, would cheapen the enterprise of religion itself.

Joseph Smith set up a religious communitarian economic system in the early days of the Mormon faith. While his vision never was fully implemented, his teachings and revelations (complete with warnings about the corrupting influence of money and inequality) are still considered scripture by Mormons, as evidenced in the church’s ongoing multibillion dollar enterprise to lift, feed, assist, and educate the poor: “If ye are not equal in earthly things, ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things.” “This is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.” “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.”

Of course, among prominent Mormon politicians such as Jon Huntsman, Harry Reid, and Mitt Romney, all have very different political approaches and all have considerably more wealth than a classic communitarian system would allow. This underscores a Mormon theology of freedom (especially regarding secular and political realms) that tends to cast a wide net. Still, when considering the Huntsmans, Reids, or Romneys, it should be remembered what a profound moral influence even the vestiges of a religious communitarian tradition-especially one so intensive as Mormonism’s-can have on an individual. After all, modern Mormons still donate ten percent of their income to the greater good.

Though on the surface he has given little indication of this, Romney may not please pure market capitalists as much as they hope. On the flip side, he may be a pleasant surprise to swing voters.While Romney’s complicated campaign strategy often leaves people guessing, a careful look into the community values of his family and religion can be informative.

For those who fear that Romney’s riches are evidence of a laissez-faire capitalist who, if elected, will bend to Wall Street’s every whim and deregulate the United States into oblivion, consider three things: his moderate record as governor, the unprecedented volunteerism he inspired during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, and his religious tradition that carefully separates free-market forces from spiritual and moral enterprises. Besides, if you know any Mormons personally, you know that we are usually way too uptight to be very laissez-faire about anything.

James T. Summerhays is Senior Executive Editor with BYU Studies Quarterly. His views do not necessarily represent those of the BYU Studies editorial board or its sponsoring institutions.