Measuring Markets and Morality

We wrote Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals? because there appeared to be a largely undisputed agreement amongst scholars and lay people that markets can and do generate material wealth and improve overall welfare but that they do so at the expense of our morality. There is, in fact, a long-standing critique of markets, i.e. that markets corrupt our morals. Engaging in market activity, says this view, places us in a kind of moral jeopardy; there is a grave and inevitable moral risk in engaging in the buying and selling of goods and services in the marketplace be-cause the market rewards our worst traits. As a result, the repeated inter-actions in and with the market and its expansion crowd out and erode our morality and foster vice. As Marx (quoted on 19) vividly described it, the market transforms man into “an abstract being, an automaton, and [...] a spiritual and physical monster”. In response, with a few exceptions, those who would defend markets tended to advance one of three sorts of argument: (1) private (market) vices generate public benefits; (2) markets are mere tools of coordination and/or distribution and thus are neither moral nor immoral; and (3) markets achieve superior moral outcomes than other economic settings/systems and so the overall benefits out-weigh the moral cost (that is, nonmarket systems put us into even worse moral situations). In our perspective, these defenses sidestepped the moral corruption critique or, more alarmingly, implicitly or explicitly em-braced it; these defenses, we felt, inadequately addressed the central moral criticism leveled by critics of the market.

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