Join 3,562 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How Markets Crowd Out Morals: A Forum On The Corrupting Effects Of Markets
May 30, 2012 12:16 PM   Subscribe

How Markets Crowd Out Morals: A Forum On The Corrupting Effects Of Markets

Michael J. Sandel - Some economists think markets can benefit all spheres of human activity. But they’re wrong: markets can erode important goods and social norms. Not only are there some things money can’t buy, but there are also many things it shouldn’t.

Responses:

Richard Sennett - When the market is everywhere, we lead a socially impoverished existence.

Matt Welch - Because Sandel disagrees with people’s choices, he wants to take those choices away.

Anita L. Allen - Financial incentives are improperly used to induce African Americans to embrace “good” behaviors.

Debra Satz - Debating the place of the market is less about the value of goods than about inequality.

Herbert Gintis - Tolerance, equality, and democracy have only flourished in market societies.

Lew Daly - Making money, formerly an exclusive realm of cosmic evil, is now “doing God’s work.”

Samuel Bowles - Even market enthusiasts know that society can’t function if people are the amoral, self-interested calculators of blackboard economics.

Elizabeth Anderson - The profit motive is corrupting the justice system.

John Tomasi - Free markets are a kind of fairness.

Michael J. Sandel replies - By keeping markets in their place, we can avoid their corrosive effects.
posted by jhandey (31 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Making money, formerly an exclusive realm of cosmic evil, is now “doing God’s work.”

Otherwise known as "devil take the hindmost".
posted by telstar at 12:49 PM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


“Under capitalism man exploits man; under socialism the reverse is true” - Polish Proverb
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:51 PM on May 30, 2012 [19 favorites]


Yeah, markets can crowd out morals.

Markets can also reveal morals.

And (someone else's) morals can distort (your) available range of market choices.
posted by darth_tedious at 12:58 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Sandel really needs some more convincing examples.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:06 PM on May 30, 2012


It seems that people have forgotten the 1st half of the name of a complete field of study... "political economics".... you can never take the politics out of it.
posted by MikeWarot at 1:36 PM on May 30, 2012


The real problem is measuring value only in terms of money. From a "let the market sort it out" stand point, a product that could cure cancer but could not be produced and sold at a profit has no value. From a human standpoint that's ridiculous but from an accounting standpoint it's absolutely true.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:01 PM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Beware of Maya
posted by philip-random at 2:04 PM on May 30, 2012


This in turn leads to that great embarrassing fact that haunts all attempts to represent the market as the highest form of human freedom: that historically, impersonal, commercial markets originate in theft. More than anything else, the endless recitation of the myth of barter, employed much like an incantation, is the economists' way of fending off any possibility of having to confront it. But even a moment's reflection makes it obvious. Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and to immediately assess them only in terms of what he could trade them in for in the market likely to have been? Surely, he can only have been a thief. Burglars, marauding soldiers, then perhaps debt collectors, were the first to see the world this way. It was only in the hands of soldiers, fresh from looting towns and cities, that chunks of gold or silver-melted down, in most cases, from some heirloom treasure, that like the Kashmiri gods, or Aztec breastplates, or Babylonian women's ankle bracelets, was both a work of art and a little compendium of history-could become simple, uniform bits of currency, with no history, valuable precisely for their lack of history, because they could be accepted anywhere, no questions asked. And it continues to be true. Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons, whether these are swords and clubs, or nowadays, "smart bombs" from unmanned drones.

...

For me, this is exactly what's so pernicious about the morality of debt: the way that financial imperatives constantly try to reduce us all, despite ourselves, to the equivalent of pillagers, eyeing the world simply for what can be turned into money-and then tell us that it's only those who are willing to see the world as pillagers who deserve access to the resources required to pursue anything in life other than money. It introduces moral perversions on almost every level. ("Cancel all student loan debt? But that would be unfair to all those people who struggled for years to pay back their student loans!" Let me assure the reader that, as someone who struggled for years to pay back his student loans and finally did so, this argument makes about as much sense as saying it would be "unfair" to a mugging victim not to mug their neighbors too.) - David Graeber, Debt
posted by crayz at 2:28 PM on May 30, 2012 [15 favorites]


The real problem is measuring value only in terms of money. From a "let the market sort it out" stand point, a product that could cure cancer but could not be produced and sold at a profit has no value. From a human standpoint that's ridiculous but from an accounting standpoint it's absolutely true.

You're conflating capitalism with markets in general. A free market system for medical research could easily be setup where people and organizations could fund cancer research or other types of research based on the perceived benefit of each kind of research. In fact that's effectively how donations and grants for medical research work today, just in a much less transparent manner. I'm by no means suggesting that markets fix everything or are always a good idea, but that's not a particularly good example of something that's difficult to put a monetary value on.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:52 PM on May 30, 2012


From the work (prayer?) by Lawrence Summers quoted in the article:

We all have only so much altruism in us. Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserving. Far better to conserve it by designing a system in which people’s wants will be satisfied by individuals being selfish, and saving that altruism for our families, our friends, and the many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve.

Holy shit, what? Allowing people to be selfish all the time makes them nicer to their loved ones? Being a decent human being diminishes the kindness that you will show your friends?

This is one of the stupidest things I've ever read. Anyone who says something like this needs to be excised from our society immediately, because this view is toxic to the very concept of interpersonal relationships. How could you believe such a thing if you've ever shown or received any kindness or altruism at any point in your life? Wouldn't you immediately notice that the reality diverges significantly from the theory?
posted by IAmUnaware at 3:03 PM on May 30, 2012 [9 favorites]


The markets did not stop over-fishing, even when it reached a point where the depleted stocks yielded much lower catches. We should probably apply some sort of valuation to limit such damage.
posted by Brian B. at 3:09 PM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserving

Larry Summers is no fool, but, like a lot of economists, he sometimes acts as if research in psychology can be carried out by scratching one's chin and saying "I reckon folks act this-a-way."
posted by escabeche at 3:22 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The markets did not stop over-fishing

This is a classic case of tragedy of the commons, which is a textbook case of market failure-literally. It is used to demonstrate how markets fail, and some kind of long term property rights are almost always the cure for this. Which (long term property rights) are one of the principles markets have to have to function properly, and securing those rights are a prime function of a well run government. Problems arise when those rights are either in too few hands (concentration of wealth) or too many (commons). Something akin to how the states (in the US) handle hunting tags on public land is probably the cure for this. Look up Market hunters to get an idea of how close lots of species that are now abundant came to extinction in the US. Buffalo are the most common known example.
posted by bartonlong at 3:27 PM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good

Before this moment, I had not once though of kindness as "stockpiling altruism."
posted by mhoye at 3:40 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The pervasive weakness of free markets as generally implemented currently is that there is a total failure to consider the costs of externalities. Of course, this is only a weakness if you're interested in an ideal free market in which the benefits of market-derived efficiencies are shared amongst the participants in the market. If you're after a cargo-cult free market designed instead to facilitate the short-term pillaging of most of the market by a few well-placed participants, then it's a feature, not a bug.

As Russell said, "I have been informed repeatedly, by persons who considered themselves hard-headed realists, that men in business normally desire to grow rich. Observation has convinced me that the persons who gave me this assurance, so far from being realists, were sentimental idealists, totally blind to the most patent facts of the world in which they live. If business men really wished to grow rich more ardently than they wish to keep others poor, the world would quickly become a paradise."
posted by Jakey at 3:57 PM on May 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Capital is a cancer, and property is its noxious brother. Expecting a market to minimize the fallout of this pairing is idealistic at best.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 4:07 PM on May 30, 2012


Interesting, considering Michael Gove, Education Secretary, has said Free schools should be allowed to make a profit.

"In fact, they already are. Last month, the for-profit Swedish company IES UK was awarded a £21m, ten-year contract by Gove to manage a free school in Suffolk - to be known as IES Breckland. Yet, according to a recent YouGov poll, fewer than one in four voters think free schools will improve education standards and less than a third of voters are in favour of allowing private companies to manage such schools."

Bye Bye education system. Bye Bye social mobility (such as it was). Hello new victorian dark ages for the poor.
posted by marienbad at 4:13 PM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


“Under capitalism man exploits man; under socialism the reverse is true” - Polish Proverb

This is one of those lies repeated often enough that people accept it as true before they stop to think about it.

Consider a capitalist hospital and a socialist hospital: you arrive with a grave injury, unconscious, and no one knows who you are. In a truly capitalist hospital, you would be left to die in the parking lot because the risk of treating you and not receiving payment is greater than the profit that the hospital would make if you were able to pay.

In a socialist hospital, you and everyone else who cared to show up would receive treatment, regardless of their ability to pay.

To pretend that both of these institutions have equal incentives for exploitation is nothing short of ridiculous. Not only are capitalist institutions founded on the principle of exploitation, but they are so focused on self-interest that they will disregard what used to be called the sanctity of human life if there's any money to be made while doing it. Even if saving your life only represents a small dent in their bottom line, capitalist institutions are incentivized to find a way to let you die.

That's why the old pot shots about the DMV are so funny to me. Do I really want to have a government doctor give me treatment? Well, if the other option is possibly becoming more ill and then being dead, yes I would really like to see a government doctor. Even if they don't drive a Porsche. I'm weird like that.
posted by deanklear at 4:37 PM on May 30, 2012 [11 favorites]


Yeah, I think the "Polish proverb" should really amend "socialism" with "authoritarian Communism as practiced in the former Soviet Union" to be at all accurate. Of course, that's not quite as catchy.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:53 PM on May 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Communism: From each according to their capability, to each according to their need.
Capitalism: From each according to their gullibility, to each according to their greed.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:22 AM on May 31, 2012


...
"Consider a capitalist hospital and a socialist hospital: you arrive with a grave injury, unconscious, and no one knows who you are. In a truly capitalist hospital, you would be left to die in the parking lot because the risk of treating you and not receiving payment is greater than the profit that the hospital would make if you were able to pay.

In a socialist hospital, you and everyone else who cared to show up would receive treatment, regardless of their ability to pay."
...
posted by deanklear at 4:37 PM on May 30 [8 favorites +] [!]



Consider that capitalist hospitals exist to accumulate capital: "you arrive with a grave injury, unconscious, and no one knows who you are. In a truly capitalist hospital", the capitalist makes a value judgment as to whether the risk of not getting paid for giving treatment now, will reduce the risk of not getting paid more in the future by having a dead person in the parking lot.

The most simple and obvious course of action for the capitalist is to offer treatment, since dead bodies in the parking lot are bad for business.

Not convinced that dead bodies on the asphalt are bad for business, the capitalist might require some persuasion from the other capitalists in the hospital that the decision to risk a short-term loss by treating the patient is small compared to the larger loss of profits (capital accumulation) in the long-term by not treating the patient.

The other capitalists are of course the group of doctors staring out the window at the bleeding, though still alive, body on the pavement. There is not a single iota of altruism in any of them, their only motivation for becoming doctors was to become wealthy.

They have a valuable franchise that is worth protecting considering how much wealth is at stake. Not everyone in the hospital or in town can call themselves a doctor, after all, if they could, the franchise would soon become worthless. To distinguish real doctors from people calling themselves doctors, and thereby protecting the franchise, the real doctors concocted various feats of intelligence and strength. These feats made it very difficult for people who could not pass them to pose as one of them. An oath was even adopted, and anyone that could not abide by the oath, could not call themselves a doctor.

Looking out the window at the bleeding and now convulsing body, the doctors consider if the wealth lost from treating the patient who can't pay is greater than the wealth that would be lost by never being able to call themselves doctors again. The doctor's guild is always on the lookout for oath breakers, thinning the ranks of the guild by purging oath breakers is a certain way to accumulate more capital after all. Ultimately, it is decided that the short term loss from treating the nearly dead deadbeat in the lot is not as large as losing the entire franchise, so the doctors head down to the lot.

These decisions naturally do not have to be considered at the socialist hospital across the border. The patient is wheeled right away into the emergency room. As the patient waits patiently the altruistic doctors make their rounds. Pure altruism is of course a lot rarer than greed, so the few altruistic doctors in the hospital are very busy. The more prevalent number of greedy doctors that work there have no franchise to protect and so are in not much of a hurry to get to the emergency room. Sure they took an oath, but its not like abiding by the oath has made them any better off than if they drove taxis. The patient of course dies, waiting for one of the busy altruistic doctors to show up, or waiting for one of the more numerous greedy doctors to finish treating the tennis elbow of the hospital Director's wife. After all, the greedy doctor caught the wink from the director when he asked if now is a good time for an elbow massage.
posted by otto42 at 7:17 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm glad to see we agree Otto.
posted by evilDoug at 7:31 AM on May 31, 2012


Oh wait, was that snark, sarcasm, a jape? Where you poking fun at Socialized medicine? Horrors. YOU HAVE CONVINCED ME THAT THE MARKET IS THE ONLY SOLUTION! I shall now proceed to vote against my own best interest because the magical self correcting market will fix everything as it has always done. I now trust our ber wealthy to take care of me. I will tell my friends that it's trickling down and that the rain has always been yellow.
posted by evilDoug at 7:40 AM on May 31, 2012


uber
uber



uber
posted by evilDoug at 7:40 AM on May 31, 2012


"Oh wait, was that snark, sarcasm, a jape? Where you poking fun at Socialized medicine? Horrors. YOU HAVE CONVINCED ME THAT THE MARKET IS THE ONLY SOLUTION! I shall now proceed to vote against my own best interest because the magical self correcting market will fix everything as it has always done. I now trust our ber wealthy to take care of me. I will tell my friends that it's trickling down and that the rain has always been yellow.
posted by evilDoug at 7:40 AM on May 31 [+] [!]"

Good, I am glad I have convinced you. Obviously you are not as evil as your moniker suggests. Maybe a change of name is in order, perhaps harmlessDoug, or formerlymisinformeddoug, or uberdoug, you get the idea. Baby steps uberdoug.
posted by otto42 at 10:14 AM on May 31, 2012


The most simple and obvious course of action for the capitalist is to offer treatment, since dead bodies in the parking lot are bad for business.

That doesn't ring true. Wouldn't it be rather simpler and more obvious (and cheaper) for the capitalist to throw the dead body in the dumpster?
posted by Juffo-Wup at 1:03 PM on May 31, 2012


Or maybe the capitalist could remove the wallets from the legion of dying folks in the parking lot

(since they are in no condition to be buying things from Amazon.com at the moment, writhing around in agony as they are),

bundle the parking-lot-writhers together in a sort of package, buy insurance on them so there's profit in it if they die, and then sell them to the socialist hospital. (or rent them to an unethical organ harvester who owns his/her own van with the condition that all unusable parts are to be mulched and returned as doggy treats for the risk-reduction analyst's purebred King Charles Cavalier puppies.)
posted by mer2113 at 5:25 PM on May 31, 2012


Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite. -- J. K. Galbraith
posted by jeffburdges at 11:26 PM on June 8, 2012


According to the Wikipedia talk page on Galbraith, that quote was from A Life in Our Times, but in context he says he's quoting a "Polish joke".

Anyway, otto42, you should be a writer; you're clearly every bit the fantasist Ayn Rand was.
posted by adamdschneider at 4:36 PM on June 10, 2012


In a truly capitalist hospital, you would be left to die in the parking lot because the risk of treating you and not receiving payment is greater than the profit that the hospital would make if you were able to pay.

In the early 1900's, many doctors still charged according to a percentage of income, in effect socializing the payment plan without insurance options. Insurance itself was probably intended to determine a priority of service since there are many levels of care and expertise, precisely because those doctors and hospitals who invested in treatment are determined to get paid in case a patient died.
posted by Brian B. at 7:02 AM on June 11, 2012


The "Polish proverb" above... I've heard it more pithily as:

"Under Capitalism, man exploits man. Under Communism, it's the other way around."
posted by telstar at 9:30 PM on June 26, 2012


« Older Yesterday, Pop Chart Lab announced a new print, me...  |  The story of a wrestling bison... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments