True North

Market economies do an amazing job of providing goods and services that we enjoy on a regular basis. A stroll through your favorite supermarket, chain drugstore, or major department store—with countless products on display—clearly illustrates our grand array of choices. When we go to sleep at night, there are literally hundreds of millions of people around the world investing time and energy thinking about us, what we need and want, and how they can produce those things.

I get excited when I can help students appreciate the power of economic forces and understand how market economies work. But at the core of any market system is a concept of value that is egocentric, humanistic, and relativistic. Markets are defined by a sense of value that says, Things are worth what I say they are worth. This poses no little challenge to a Christian professor of economics.

I have come to believe that your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness, and sometimes a real weakness, in another context, can actually work for you. Such is the case, I believe, with marketplace morality. The greatest weakness of markets is they are morally neutral—they can’t distinguish between penicillin or pornography, peanuts or prostitution, housing or heroin. In 2004 Americans spent $92.8 billion on gambling as compared to $38.7 billion on computers and peripherals. But markets are excellent mirrors for reflecting whatever values people bring to them. If we bring the right values to the marketplace, then that is what will be reflected back to us in the form of goods and services.

Over the last several years, I’ve been trying to synthesize a list of values that transcend pure economic individualism. Are there values that everyone can agree and aspire to? I offer these twelve:

• People are more important than things.
• Treat others as you want to be treated.
• Truth matters at all levels.
• Leave things a little better than you found them.
• People are looking for a cause to live for that is larger than themselves.
• Let freedom ring. (In the best companies, people don’t feel like slaves. They feel that they can have influence.)
• Community counts.
• Good laws will outlive good men.
• Value vocation. (Decide who you want to be, and let that drive what you do.)
• Life is a mix of duty and delight.
• Choice has consequence.
• Keep the core when all else is changing. (People will be better positioned to accept change when they know something isn’t changing fundamentally.)

I’m not suggesting that people have embraced these values to the point where they are fully integrated into economic activity, but people do want to live in an economic world where critical transcendent values operate throughout the system. This requires economic leadership, and leaders who know where to go. Our desire at Wheaton is for students to graduate with a recognition of knowing how to find “true north,” a keen sense for moral direction. It is the only way we can be truly pleased with all the outcomes of the marketplace.

Dr. Bruce Howard ’74, Professor of Business & Economics, is chair of the business and economics department of Wheaton College. He is a CPA, and earned his Ph.D. in economics and his M.S.A. in accounting from Northern Illinois University. Dr. Howard enjoys spending time with his family, and his hobbies include art, music (guitar and banjo), and playing tennis. He is also currently working on a book that elaborates on his 12 values for a moral marketplace. (The above statement was included at the time of publication — Wheaton Magazine, Winter 2006)

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