Freddie Gray died one year ago. The 25-year-old African-American man had been arrested for possessing what the Baltimore Police Department described as an illegal switchblade. The officers put him in handcuffs, locked him in the back of a police transport van and took him for what The Baltimore Sun describes as “a rough ride”—a form of police brutality “in which police vans are driven to cause ‘injury or pain’ to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees.” The coroner ruled that Mr. Gray died as a result of the injuries he sustained in the back of that van.
The ensuing protests on behalf of Mr. Gray turned violent. Thirty-four people were arrested and 6 police officers were injured. Patrol cars were destroyed, a CVS store was burned to the ground, and the National Guard had to be summoned to restore order. It was a tragic scene, just one more horrific event in one of America’s most blighted and beleaguered cities.
Fast forward 12 months: The Wall Street Journal reported in April that “nearly a year after riots shook Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries the young black man sustained in a police van, 25 area companies and institutions” have pledged “millions more to boost the city’s economy. The money will go toward construction, goods and services supplied by local, women- and minority-owned companies, and to ramp up local hiring, boost mentoring of fledgling businesses and provide hundreds of summer jobs to city youth.”
This is welcome news. If Baltimore is to avoid the kind of violence that it experienced last spring, then in addition to reforms of its police practices and criminal justice system, the city needs a legal economy that can compete with the illegal one. Government has a big role to play in making that happen, but in the final analysis, a flourishing private sector is the main engine of economic growth and opportunity. “Business is a noble vocation,” Pope Francis wrote in “Laudato Si’,” “directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
Those who champion the principles of Catholic social teaching should bear that in mind. Too often our first instinct is to turn to the government for a solution to our problems. Yet while there are some problems for which there is only a government solution, there is not a government solution to every problem, especially the most important problems of human living. As I have noted previously in this column, we need to recall that the church’s teaching on economics is a moral teaching; it is not a technical prescription. We believe that human beings have a duty to care for one another, especially for the least among us. This requires social and political structures that promote moral responsibility, equality of opportunity, an equitable distribution of resources and a strong social safety net.
But apart from a thoroughly justifiable suspicion of utterly this-worldly -isms, whether they originate with the left or the right, the church is—if you’ll pardon the expression—largely agnostic when it comes to the technical means for building a more just society. The question, in other words, is simply “what works?” What is the most effective and moral means to a more just society? Properly conceived and regulated, markets are a force for good. “The right use of natural resources,” Pope Francis has said, “the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.”
That is precisely the kind of economy that Baltimore and places like it need. And truth be told: They won’t have it unless they are able to harness the power of markets to build the communities they deserve.