Saturday, 26 May 2012

Selling the Soul of Society

Prof. Michael Sandel spoke recently at St. Paul's Cathedral about his new book, the Moral Limits of Markets.  He certainly agrees that many of the markets in which we trade goods and services are an optimal tool for the personal and common good and that well-functioning markets with flourishing competition can promote prosperity, innovation and personal freedom.  The difficulty is determining the boundary between areas where markets are the optimal mechanism for organising human activity and where they shouldn't be allowed to operate.

In his book, Prof. Sandel lays down his thesis that over the course of the past two decades or so, markets have been encroaching upon spheres of life where they don't belong.  He gave many examples in his lecture of where certain market mechanisms were used to take advantage of the economically vulnerable; this produced not just injustice, but also the devaluation of human life and a corrosion of our morals and social norms.  He argues that if the people from all socio-economic classes in a society don’t meet with one another on occasion and ‘bump up against each other’ in everyday activity, they won’t have an opportunity to discuss the important moral and ethical questions that matter most.  If we don’t influence one another on moral questions and social problems, then markets will fill the void.

Another speaker on the night, the Rt. Revd. Peter Selby, pointed out that, in theological terms, the transformation from a market economy into a market society has occurred because we've made markets into idols.  There was a loud murmur of agreement among the several hundred in attendance.  Revd. Selby described idolatry as 'a means of extracting delight and honour from things which do not deserve' such adoration and allegiance.   And I think that the reverend was spot on.  Because human beings are telic creatures, something has to capture the highest allegiance of every heart.  Idolatry happens when good things become ultimate things, be they money, material objects, achievement, acclaim, comfort, approval or control.  This is when they become objects of worship, and lead, almost inevitably, to unintended consequences.  

Idolatry leads to the very powerful problem Prof. Sandel highlights in his work - they cause the hardening of our humanity.  When certain services are available to the highest bidder (such as body advertising or buying 3rd party life insurance – the so-called death bets which have apparently become a booming industry in the US), this can lead to dehumanisation.  Over time, the beauty and sanctity of our wills, minds and emotions can be eroded and our hearts can become hardened.  

And it isn’t as though this process has just sneaked up on us out of the blue.  In the 1970s the US sociologist Daniel Bell predicted that though capitalism was born of the protestant work ethic, with its emphasis on asceticism and discipline, one product of the system would be a capitalist mentality of restlessness, striving, and individual acquisitiveness.  He thought that the two elements of capitalism would exist in tension with one another and that gradually, the traditional values which had underpinned and given meaning to the capitalist economy would be overwhelmed by the more destructive forces.

Bell believed that a key driver of this change in capitalism would come from an increasing focus on the self, leading to impulsiveness and excess.  Combined with urbanisation, mass communication and easy credit, this would gradually transform citizens into consumers, encouraged by the system itself to gratify their desires.  Cultural and economic forces would ultimately conspire to undermine the restraint and morality that had given birth to capitalism and were needed to hold it together.  Social values would be corrupted because they were no longer concerned with how to work and achieve but how to spend and enjoy.  According to Bell, ‘when the protestant ethic was sundered from bourgeois society, only hedonism remained …the elements that provide men with common identification and effective reciprocity – family, church and community – lost their hold, and people’s capacity to maintain sustained relations with each other was destroyed.’

Similar warnings were made by the Victorian intellectual John Ruskin who wrote during the British Industrial Revolution, criticising the short-termist orientation and behaviour of liberal capitalists.  In his work Unto this Last, Ruskin asserted that self-serving business motivation could become dangerously self-fulfilling and would actually lead to inefficient and self-defeating outcomes.  Considering the financial crisis of the past few years, it is remarkable how prescient he was.  Ruskin believed that it was essential that the ethical dimension of markets be considered by not only financiers, business leaders, policy makers and economists but by ordinary citizens as well.  He advocated strongly for socially responsible business and prudent stewardship of resources, asserting that these would not only lead to better economic outcomes – in the form of a more robust capitalist economy – but would also enhance the lives of all those involved in the process.     

Professor Sandel thinks that we follow down a dangerous path when we use cash incentives to solve social problems; he believes this leads to the transformation of using the market as a tool for making certain exchanges more fair, effective and efficient in to a market society where just about every human endeavour is for sale.  Privatising formerly public goods like prisons, health and education are can undermine their purposes and values.   When we allow markets to corrode meaning and value in human life, we are treading on very dangerous ground.  He said, 'markets are increasingly crowding out civic virtue' -one of the most valuable common goods a society possesses. 

By avoiding public discussion over what we value in promoting the common good, we may be sparing ourselves the difficult task of deliberating over our values, but  the cost of this avoidance is high.  Sandel says that if we don’t debate these difficult subjects, the market will decide for us.  What we need is a more robust public discourse on our values, though how this can come about is unclear.  Prof. Sandel closed on a comment made by Kenneth Arrow who believed that altruism was a scarce social resource to be used sparingly; hence Arrow's belief in the widespread proliferation of markets.  Prof. Sandel objected to this metaphor, and I think that Rev Selby, Daniel Bell and John Ruskin would all have agreed.  Moral behaviour is something that becomes stronger as it is utilised, like a muscle, rather than something to be called upon rarely.  If we allow moral and ethical considerations to be separated and removed from the market economy, we have only ourselves to blame for the detrimental effects to our society that result.

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