Scholars discuss trade policy, human freedom, and government regulation

Originally Published April 19th, 2023

The Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government (CCCG) hosted Notre Dame Professor James Otteson and Hillsdale College Lecturer Michael Anton to debate the morality of markets on March 24 in the Jordan Auditorium.

The discussion was formatted as a modified Lincoln-Douglas debate with Otteson going first for 12 minutes, followed by Anton for 18 minutes, and finishing with 6 more minutes from Otteson. Then, there was time allotted for questions from the interlocutors and the audience. 

In his opening remarks, Otteson, a professor of business ethics, suggested it was not proper to evaluate the morality of markets since markets, unlike individuals, are not free and rational beings with moral agency. He suggested, “Any criticism we would raise of bad choices should always begin with the agents making those choices, not with the instruments they use to effectuate their choices.”

Students found Otteson’s initial clarification helpful in unpacking the rest of the debate. Blake Perry, a senior finance major, said, “I think [Otteson’s] distinction is really insightful for thinking about free market economics, as many critics of market economies often direct their moral criticism at the market itself, when their criticism actually implicates the morality of individuals’ actions within the market.”

Anton agreed that markets are neither moral nor immoral, but he pointed out that markets can be directed towards moral or immoral ends. Anton, then, moved the debate in the direction of trade policy because “that’s perhaps where the greatest amount of political controversy is, right now.”

Anton pointed to the founders’ willingness to “distort the market deliberately so that nascent American industries can catch up and have a chance to be born when they would be crushed.” He presented this early support for protectionist economic policies as a sign that the founders recognized “that government steering markets in certain directions would be beneficial to the American people as a whole and to the American government.”

Otteson proposed two responses to Anton’s calls for tariffs. Appealing to Catholic Social Teaching, he pointed to the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, who suggested government intervention into the market could lead to human dignity being disregarded: “Part of respecting human dignity is allowing them the responsible freedom to the sanctity of their consciences and to making decisions for themselves.”

Adding a secular argument, Otteson argued that the information and processing ability of individual people required to reach the ideal proposals for government regulations “would require a level of knowledge that is orders of magnitude beyond anything that any single human being could possibly possess.” Under his view, it is not possible for a single person or group of people to have the capacity to make these decisions correctly.

Otteson and Anton also sparred over the success of the Japanese economy. In his opening remarks, Anton pointed to how “[Japan hasn’t] done any of the things Western free traders” demand, yet “the political health of Japan, the economic health of Japan, and the day-to-day life of a Japanese citizen [are] all very, very strong.” 

During the question-and-answer period, Otteson took issue with the idea that Japan is a major success story highlighting the country’s impending demographic crisis caused by an aging population. Anton countered that demographic problems are not unique to Japan and instead are the nearly unavoidable consequence of certain levels of development, income, and birth rates. 

Students found the discussion of the Japanese economy enlightening. Luke Schafer, a senior economics major, said, “Before the debate, I considered Japan to be in poor economic shape—high debt, low (if any) growth, moribund stock market—but after Anton’s remarks, I was able to see Japan’s economy in a different light. Its economy might not be growing, but it adequately provides for its citizens and largely avoids the ‘deaths of despair’ seen in the post-free trade Rust Belt.”

One of the recurring themes of the question-and-answer period was the effects of deindustrialization and the rise of the professional managerial class. Students wondered how the free market could promote human freedom and dignity when people are dying deaths of despair and working crazy hours. 

Otteson suggested the alternatives to the free market system would have similar if not worse effects and indicated much of this societal problem could be attributable to a lack of contemplation about what makes a good, fulfilled life. Anton took a much more sympathetic approach, highlighting how financialization has limited options for a middle class lifestyle, in some instances necessitating that individuals sign away their souls.

Students found this discussion enlightening as they contemplate their own future career paths. Christian McClaine, a sophomore finance major, found the conversation intriguing: “I have had the concern that the hours I would be working in investment banking or private equity jobs would interfere with other areas of my life, and that question is a significant part of my prayer life right now. I agree with Anton’s claim that a market-driven trend has created a system where I either have to be a workhorse or pursue other fields (barring perhaps a few firms that are structured well) or pursue other interests, and that is a great shame.”

A full recording of the debate can be found on the CCCG’s YouTube page.

John Soza is a sophomore from Los Angeles, California, studying finance with minors in constitutional studies and theology. When he is not using Morrissey’s smokers to make brisket or homemade bacon, he can be found reading. Contact him at

Photo Credit: Canva Stock Image

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