Religion & Liberty Online

The free market vs. the ‘Really Really Free Market’

Salvation Army. (Photo credit: William Murphy. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Recently in Grand Rapids an old idea served as a catalyst for a new community event, the “Really Really Free Market.” This “market” was open to guests where they are free to give and take a range of goods provided by community members and organizations free of charge:

Organizer MC Camp said the community-building event feels too good to be true to many, but represents local generosity. They encouraged people to ditch the idea of considering the event “charity” and focus more on neighbors supporting neighbors.

“It’s hard to believe that something can be free,” Camp said. “Just think of it kind of like if you want to go and get an egg from a neighbor, they’re not going to say give me the egg back. It’s a gift. So just think about this market as giving gifts to each other.”

I am the last person in the world to critique people’s impulses for generosity and acts of charity. But the characterization of this as a “market” strikes me as a bit odd. Markets are traditionally understood as places where individuals, in the words of Adam Smith, “truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” Free markets are not free not from prices but from constraints, regulations, and other hindrances to human action … rather than free in the sense of, say, “free beer.” Markets are the hubs of networks of specialization and trade where people voluntarily exchange their own unique time, talents, knowledge, and services with others for their own gifts, creating value for themselves and their communities. They serve a coordinating function to generate both individual and social well-being.

Charity is necessary and obligatory, but it is quite different. It does not coordinate the time, talents, and service of persons in an exchange; it is a pure gift. Charity is a different and, in a sense, a nobler calling: “In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).

This is how we understand in ordinary speech that a food pantry and a food market are different: One is a place of exchange, and one is a place of pure gift. Both are good and needed; indeed, one could argue that if there were none of the latter, we would have none of the former.

The event’s organizer seems to have a problem with the word “charity,” believing it to be an obstacle to the notion of neighbors supporting neighbors, or that it somehow robs people in need of their dignity. There is a sense in which this is true. Community is a place of freedom and responsibility, of intersecting but distinct opportunities and responsibilities. A son does not help his mother with the dishes out of a sense of either charity or ambition for profit but out of filial piety (Deuteronomy 5:16). A café does not serve its customers out of charity or as the result of family bonds; it exchanges the value of its service for its customers’ payments – although it may be ethical and kind in the exercise of its business. A food pantry does not charge admission or demand to see a family tree but gives without distinction. These are all ways in which neighbors serve neighbors in different ways and social contexts.

By reducing neighbors helping neighbors to acts of charity alone, we flatten our understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity of ways in which people serve their communities in their families, churches, and businesses. Charity serves a vital role in society and in our own spiritual lives: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). Charity deserves to be called by its own name and commended for its own sake.

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.