On Productive Disagreements and Theological Harmony

It’s an honor to engage with Dan Crane on this, and I deeply appreciate his kind remarks.  But our very cordial disagreement perfectly illustrates a problem with his reasoning:  unity and harmony is perfectly compatible with disagreement and competition.

Let me first counter one point, a minor one to Dan’s cogent reasoning but a critical one for antitrust-in-action (and the realist question of whether a court would view this cartel to be within antitrust’s domain).  Dan says “Producing and selling food is a commercial transaction; hiring rabbis or pastors is not.”  To quote Harry First, an antitrust giant, a co-author on my amicus brief on this topic, and a former synagogue president, “If you’ve ever negotiated with a rabbi, you’ll know it’s commerce.”  There is an essentially commercial element to the rabbinic market–synagogues work hard to raise funds to pay rabbinic salaries; rabbis sign heavily-negotiated employment contracts with synagogues, often with the aid of advocates; and both synagogues and rabbis are highly aware of market wages.  Yes, rabbis do lots of very good things, but they receive compensation for them — as they should! — and are squarely engaged in commercial transactions with their employing synagogues.

To make a larger point:  lots of professionals are dedicated to the public interest, and some even define “professionals” as those whose careers are designed to advance the public interests — see “A Community Within A Community: The Professions”, a seminal 1957 work in sociology.  Consider a physician’s dedication to health & healing, a lawyer’s commitment to advocacy & justice, and an engineer’s devotion to science & safety.  To be sure, these commitments to public service do a world of good and motivate conduct (charity, research, government service, other) that both markets and governments have difficulty providing. But these aspects of professionalism also make professional cartels particularly pernicious.  Precisely because their conduct is premised on noble spirits, they feel entitled to maintain their market dominance; because their attachment to their fellow professionals is so core to their identity, exit or defection becomes unlikely, making their cartel much more stable than other cartels; because they are motivated by paternalist concerns, they easily justify usurping choice, freedom, and efficiencies from consumers. Although professionals do not need to apologize for seeking compensation for their services, their professional zeal often leads to commercial excesses and abuses, and these excesses and abuses are routinely justified in the language serving the public interest.

But my primary point is my first, that both antitrust the First Amendment — and both pluralism and democracy — are premised on a civil exchange of ideas and the freedom to choose among them.  Just like the virulent debates between osteopaths and allopaths, between Bayesian and non-Bayesian statisticians, and (to use a provincial example) between the Mitnagdim and the Hasidim, there are disagreements among Jewish organizations.  Antitrust readily permits agreements to emerge from a competition of ideas — we call them setting standards — and it applauds osteopaths and allopaths when they achieve harmony and unite around a common course of treatment.  But it appropriately would condemn any agreement that is antithetical to a productive clash of ideas.  The rabbis are welcome to disagree among themselves or disagree with congregational choices, but they are not permitted to impose their will though their collective economic dominance.

Dan hit on a very foundational idea.  There is a deeply-felt inclination among religious communities, and perhaps among all ethnic communities, to avoid visible disputes and to seek theological and political unity.  These inclinations have motivated many of my own co-religionists to urge me not to seek legal action and, more generally, to stop talking about this issue publicly.  To be sure, there is an obvious response to that argument, and I submit that voicing disagreement with legal, economic, and moral reasoning is much more squarely within the American tradition.  Fortunately for me, it is this tradition that supports the Sherman Act and the American legal system.  More generally, there is a long and proud history of theological disagreements in America where the resolution is to permit each community to pursue its own beliefs.  This distinguishes the horrors of religious disagreements expressed through force from the benefits of religious disagreements expressed through reason.

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