Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How Markets Crowd Out Morals

That's the name of the lead essay by Michael Sandel in the latest Boston Review. Excerpt:
This economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. But the metaphor is misleading. Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously.
I agree with Sandel, even I'm not completely sure about all of his applications. For instance, economists are in remarkable agreement, contrary to many people (like Sandel, apparently), that the selling of organs such as kidneys should be allowed. I'm not convinced that the economists are wrong on that particular issue. I am convinced, however, that the utilitarian view, in which the social good is determined by the sum total of individual subjective desires, is wrong. What's downright bizarre to me is the economist's conception of altruism and love as scarce goods.

The more libertarian I get, the more anti-market I become. That's because the market has come to be a "mere mechanism," as Sandel puts it in his criticism of the economist's view. As a mere mechanism, it then becomes a tool for technocrats to place themselves at the helm of society under the presumption that they can steer us toward economic salvation. Money is not the ultimate tool for determining behavior. Banks are not the salvation of the world. You would have thought 2008 had taught us that already.

What makes the market work, in the classical liberal conception to which I subscribe, is the fact that our morals guide us. This is the whole point of Hayek's The Fatal Conceit. If we were guided solely by instinct, we would be stuck in small hunter-gatherer societies with no grounds on which to cooperate with people outside our tribe. If we are guided solely by reason, however, we often presumptuously move to destroy the conventions and institutions which have made us successful as a species. Our morals act as a buffer between instinct and reason, guiding us through complex decisions for which our instincts are either inadequate or misleading, and for which our reason is incapable of finding a satisfactory justification even when we are making the right decision.

The market, in this view, emerged over time as a set of conventions and institutions which tend to enhance the thriving of human beings. But once we assume that the market is a product of our reason and can be given some a priori justification based on a utilitarian conception of ethics, then we tend to treat it as a system through which to organize all of society, thus "crowding out" our morals.

The way forward, in my opinion, is through what I would like to call (somewhat paradoxically) a critical respect for tradition. Our moral traditions, in particular, have made human flourishing possible. Unfortunately, we inherit these moral traditions as one big package, so to speak. When we unpack these traditions, we have to critically assess how they can fit together. Sometimes they can't, and we must abandon certain traditions altogether. Sometimes we will spend our entire lives trying to resolve our morals in ways that can't fit in any logically coherent way, but this doesn't always mean that we must choose one or the other. It is the critical struggle with our moral traditions that produces moral advances. The outright rejection of moral tradition, on the other hand, is pure folly. You can't start from nothing.

For example, there are certainly competing moral traditions which have a say in the question of selling organs as commodities. On the one hand, we have a traditional belief in the sanctity of human life, and sacred things can't simply be bought and sold. To offer up your own kidney to someone who needs it is indeed a noble sacrifice, and everyone should recognize it as such. On the other hand, there is a certain dignity to the reciprocity of a market transaction. One man needs a kidney (much) more than he needs $10,000, another man needs $10,000 more than he needs both kidneys; the trade benefits both parties. It seems to me that making such a transaction legal would not have an utterly corrosive effect on our morals. What if it saved lives? Can we really be so terribly upset by that?

On other particular examples, I mostly agree with Sandel. Should we really give each other cash presents as gifts? That seems crass, and probably for a good reason. We are not being "irrational" by attempting to put a little more thought into gift-giving than just writing a check. On the other hand, it is also quite superficial to search high and low for a "good gift" without ever truly getting to know your relatives. I'm sure Sandel understands that there are many other good reasons to be concerned with the excessive gift-giving every year at Christmas time. We have to weigh our various moral traditions, from the value of gift-giving to the dignity of simple living, from the beauty of grandiose celebrations to the virtue of thrift.

Sandel's major contribution to the discussion is not in the particulars, but rather in the general principle which he states so well: "our capacity for love and benevolence is enlarged with practice." I couldn't agree more. Aside from strange utilitarian assumptions made by economists, the real problem of modern society is the ease with which we are able to think only of ourselves. With as much affluence as we have, it is difficult to find in ourselves the desire and the discipline to make lasting commitments which are not reducible to mere transactions. Yet without such commitments, the human race would never have flourished as it has. Moreover, I'm not sure it's even possible to understand individual happiness as an idea completely independent of committed relationships. Relationships to one another give us identity, which in turn gives us meaning, which in turn gives us happiness, provided those relationships are healthy.

Of course, this makes us ask which commitments are good. Considering this is an article about the corrupting influence of money, I would have to say that governments stand out as particularly poor candidates for our allegiance. Is there any doubt that the coercive power of government is a magnet for political crony capitalists and special interests? Sandel cites an instance in which a small Swiss town was asked to host a nuclear waste site. I, for one, do not yearn for a world in which men's hearts swell with patriotic pride at the thought of storing nuclear waste for the sake of the greater good. In fact, I'm not sure I really sympathize with the Swiss townspeople for being more willing to cooperate under the condition of not receiving compensation. But perhaps the Swiss feel a greater sense of solidarity, given that they live in such a small country which has allowed itself to be relatively isolated from conflict. The United States is not such a country.

In my opinion, the commitments we ought to foster the most are those which we can see and know personally: our families, our friends, our neighbors in our communities, our colleagues, our churches, etc. I am very skeptical of people calling for commitments to large institutions such as our national government, except insofar as it is required to provide a basic social cohesion in which a variety of communities and institutions can flourish. It is pointless to love people in general and no one in particular. I think it is therefore misguided to put the interests of country before the interests of people you actually know. If your nation begins to trample the rights of your community, then loyalty to country is no longer a virtue.

Sandel doesn't really delve into politics per se, but I think he means to go there, and I'd be curious to hear what his political philosophy is. In any case, he has given us some important things to think about, and I look forward to seeing what kind of influence he has on the intellectual community. The economists, in particular, should have some interesting things to say.

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