Why Can’t Markets be Moral?

Last week, I said there was an emerging market for morality. I painted that particular picture in a somewhat negative light. Andrew Goodman, a fellow Canadian who I have always admired for both his intellect and morality, called me on it (via my Facebook feed): Nice post, but I was hoping for a little more from this.” I paraphrase Andrew’s eloquent and lengthy reply by boiling it down to essentially this: extreme circumstances call for extreme measures and if that has to come from corporations and their advertising, then so be it.

It’s fair to say the last week has done nothing to dispel Goodman’s assessment of the extremity of the situation. Insanity seems to be accelerating at an alarming rate.

But on further reflection, I feel some further clarification needed here. I ascribed morality to markets, not necessarily corporations. There’s an important difference here. Corporations are agents within markets and will follow where markets lead. And increasingly, it looks like there is a market movement towards morality. Morality is becoming more profitable. So let’s look specifically at the morality of the market.

On one hand you could take the position of British economic historian Robert Skidelsky, who said in 2008 that there is an inherent dilemma when one looks for morality in economic markets. This was essentially the point I raised last week:

It has often been claimed that capitalism rewards the qualities of self-restraint, hard work, inventiveness, thrift, and prudence. On the other hand, it crowds out virtues that have no economic utility, like heroism, honour, generosity, and pity.

But let’s say for the moment that Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” is solely moved by greed. Does that mean that no good can come from it? New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ran a column earlier this year stating that 2017 could be the best year ever. If you can set your cognitive dissonance aside for a moment, here were his reasons:

  • “Since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations, breast-feeding promotion, diarrhea treatment and more.”
  • “Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. in the early 1980s, more than 40 percent of all humans were living in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 10 percent are. By 2030 it looks as if just 3 or 4 percent will be.”
  • “While income inequality has increased within the U.S., it has declined on a global level because China and India have lifted hundreds of millions from poverty.”
  • “Some 40 countries are now on track to eliminate elephantiasis. When you’ve seen the anguish caused by elephantiasis — or leprosy, or Guinea worm, or polio, or river blindness, or blinding trachoma — it’s impossible not to feel giddy at the gains registered against all of them.”
  • “85 percent of adults are literate. And almost nothing makes more difference in a society than being able to read and write.”

All these benefits come from the “trickling down” benefits of capitalism. Globalization and the opening of new markets have unleashed a tide that has raised all boats. Kristoff shows what happens when you look at a bigger picture and rely on facts rather than personally held beliefs that come from your own limited perspective. What we forget is that the very first mention Adam Smith made of his “invisible hand” was actually in a text called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” in 1759. Here was the exact passage:

“The proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest … [Yet] the capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires … the rest he will be obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of. The rich…are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

In direct contrast to the protectionist policies of the current U.S. administration, the western world (especially the U.S.) is the landlord in this scenario. As much as we may want to rely on our beliefs rather than facts, the average American is better off now they were 50 years ago as measured by almost any empirical baseline you may want to use: lifespan, economic well being, degree of civil freedom, measure of social equality or quality of our environment. And this American free-market drive to get ahead has dragged the whole world in its wake. Again, Robert Skidelsky concedes this point:

“From the ethical point of view, consumption is a means to goodness, and the market system is the most efficient engine for lifting people out of poverty: it is doing so at a prodigious rate in China and India.”

The other potential moral windfall of markets is that there is a second kind of “trickle down” effect that also happens – the driving forward of technology. Technology is a tool that is designed to advance the interests of humans. While there is much in technology that is misapplied to the human condition, we cannot deny that technology continually and consistently makes us better than we were yesterday. As Kristof notes in his column, today 300,000 more people around the world will get electricity for the first time. This will enable access to communication networks, clean water, higher levels of hygiene and many other spin-off benefits. All this happens because corporations see potential profitability in new markets.

But there is another piece to this. If we look only at the “trickle down” effects of capital markets, we have to keep a careful eye on what’s happening at the top of the pyramid. As Skidelsky said in 2008, “But this does not tell us at what point consumption tips us into a bad life.”

 

 

 

 

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