The Ethical Foundation of the Market Economy
A Reflection on Economic Personalism in the Thought of Luigi Sturzo

The passages quoted above serve to make immediate the point of view that we intend to make our own in reflecting on the moral basis of the free market. Thanks to the stimulus from these two authors, we have already begun to think about the concrete possibility of reconciling some typical aspects of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church with certain characteristic aspects of that particular strand of modern liberalism represented by the Austrian School, also called "classic" or "Anglo-American." We will proceed in this way, dedicating particular attention to the reflections of an Italian thinker, the Sicilian priest and founder of the Italian Popular Party, Luigi Sturzo (1871-1959). Sociologist and philosopher, he was able, at the end of the last century, to inaugurate a new stage of Catholic political action: popolarismo. [1] In 1926, on account of his anti-fascism, he was forced to leave Italy and so to begin a long, sad, but providential exile that he led for twenty years: first in France, then in England, and finally in the United States.

It is my intention to discuss some of the ethical problems that attach to political and economic institutions–for example, the market and competition–following the work of this interpreter of Christian social thought, making him converse with some of the more relevant exponents of classical liberal thought.

One relevant bit of support for the task before us comes from Friedrich von Hayek. The Austrian economist, going over the salient "stops," on the long "march" of liberal thought in the history of humanity, in the footsteps of Lord Acton, called Aquinas "the first Whig"–the founder of the party of liberty. He also referred to Nicholas of Cusa and Bartolus of Sassoferrato at the beginning of his investigation into the first political schools that formulated the principle of the rule of law and of self-governing communities. (He was referring to the project of civil society or civic republicanism, dear to the Founding Fathers of the United States and springing substantially from the Christian principle of subsidiarity– civitas sibi princeps). "But in some respects Lord Acton was not being altogether paradoxical when he described Thomas Aquinas as the first Whig [and] a fuller account (of the history of liberalism) would have to give special attention to Nicolas of Cusa in the thirteenth century and Bartolus in the fourteenth century, who carried on the tradition." [2]

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Flavio Felice is an adjunct scholar at AEI.


1. By "popularism," we mean the political and economic ideal elaborated by Sturzo in pre Fascist Italy and then, later, during his twenty-year exile in France, England, and the United States, through that particular associative experiment that was the People and Freedom group. This group was founded in London in 1936 by a group of young people, under the sponsorship of the exiled Caltarigone: "People and Freedom" was the motto of Savanarola. "The people" signifies not only the working classes but the entire citizenship, because all should enjoy liberty and participation in governance. "The people" also signifies democracy, but democracy without liberty would mean tyranny, just as liberty without democracy would become liberty only for some privileged classes, never the entire populace. Luigi Sturzo, Nazionalismo e internazionalismo (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1971), 108.

2. Friedrich von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, trans. from Italian edition (Roma: Seam, 1998), 457, n. 4. In the rest of the essay, we will use the phrase "classical liberalism" as a synonym for "Old Whigs," with the meaning given to the expression by Hayek. "As opposed to some other very different thinkers, more often found in Europe, who are also called liberals, who are better called 'Old Whigs,' and whose outstanding thinkers were Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton." Friedrich von Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, trans. from Italian edition (Milano: Rusconi, 1988), 99. It should be noted that Saint Thomas "devised Whiggism to bolster religious absolutism." Rocco Pezzimenti, Il pensiero politico di Lord Acton. I cattolici inglesi nell’ottocento (Roma: Studium, 1992), 130. On the same argument we cite the following essays by Michael Novak, "The Judeo-Christian Concept of the Person," Journal of Markets and Morality 1, no. 2 (1998): 107–21; "The Catholic Whig Revisited," First Things (March 1990): 39–42; Rev. Robert A. Sirico, "The Economics of the Late Scholastics," Journal of Markets and Morality 1, no. 2 (1998): 122–29; and Rocco Buttiglione, The Moral Mandate for Freedom: Reflections on Centesimus Annus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Acton Institute, 1998). On Bartolo da Sassoferrato, see Antonio M. Baggio, Riflessione su alcune categorie politiche alla luce della rivelazione trinitaria, in AA.VV., Abitare la trinità. Per un rinnovamento dell'ontologia, ed. Piero Coda and Lubomir Zak (Roma: Città Nuova, 1998), 173–236.

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