The Christian notion of “just price” is not easily applied in today’s market, but it can go a long way toward fostering a fairer economy.
One of the forgotten Christian doctrines is that of the just price. It is wrong to sell an object or a service for more than it is worth (or to buy an object or a service for less than it is worth), for doing so violates proportionality in an exchange between individuals. Profiting or becoming wealthy from another’s loss is an unfair exchange and an injustice.
It is obvious that in practice this doctrine can be difficult to apply. Who can say what is the exact value of a given good? In our economy, prices fluctuate regularly, and we largely accept that the market price of a good is its just price at a given time.
The market is indeed a powerful and helpful tool to coordinate supply and demand. Market prices reflect the desire for, and availability of, goods and services. It is obvious that attempts to manipulate them often cause unforeseen and undesired consequences. Christian theologians, for instance, have acknowledged and accepted the justice of charging more or less depending on scarcity.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that no matter how high or low the market drives the price of goods, the reality of a fair (or unfair) exchange persists. As with sexual morality, “mutual consent” is not enough to establish the justice of an act. A buyer or a seller may not know they are agreeing to a bad price, or have no choice but to agree to an unfavorable exchange.
This is especially important to keep in mind when we remember the elusiveness of a “natural” market price. Price manipulation is itself a consequence of free agency in a market. In a year when gas prices threaten to dip, producers may cut production to prop up prices. Currency manipulation is designed to achieve specific ends, such as inflation. When even the value of money fluctuates due to free, rational choices, who can say that there is an objective market price that is not the result of some manipulation? In such a context, determining the just price is not easy, but becomes a matter of evaluating the interests and deliberate actions that are affecting prices. Did we deliberately overproduce a resource to flood a market and drive down the income of a competitor? Did my contractor charge me more than my neighbor because his employees asked for a raise, or because I look like a fool?
Some factors that go into determining a price are difficult to trace. Intentions can remain hidden. The just price is not so much a utopian ideal to achieve in every exchange, but a moral model to be held before consciences. The ineffectiveness of some who champion economic justice derives from their unrealistic aspirations to solve every last injustice: lack of credibility is the fruit of hectoring idealism. On the other hand, the fruit of a clear and powerful moral warning is more honest players in the marketplace.
Price fatalism has dominated conservative discourse, with the belief that the market is dictating prices according to equilibrium between supply and demand. As such, discourse regarding economic policy has centered on selective critiques and free passes. When labor unions organize for higher wages, they are forcing the consumer to pay more. When companies buy back shares to increase value for shareholders rather than invest in their employees, they are exercising their prerogative as a private business. Analyzing actions by actor shifts our focus to “who did it” rather than “what was done.”
This obscures the moral question at the heart of any given action—was it the right thing to do? On the other hand, a moral analysis of economic action, with the just price as a grounding concept, allows us to evaluate all actors morally. Is this union organizing because its members are not making enough to provide for their families, or because they recognize their power and are cynically squeezing everything they can out of the system? Is this company buying back shares because it is the best thing for their employees, customers, and mid-level shareholders for the long-term, or because a few people in the boardroom seek to make a quick profit this quarter?
The concept of the just price cannot of itself solve all unfairness in the economy. But the recognition that there is a moral value to every exchange is a necessary corrective to the current ambivalence that consent makes right—and a chilling reminder that we ourselves are capable of doing grave wrong to our neighbor if we experience gain by their loss.