Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?

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Short answer: No.

Slightly longer answer: Of course not. If anything, it's the opposite.

The authors, Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi, are at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. They have written a very dense analysis of a topic that's been discussed for centuries, succinctly expressed in their book's title. Admittedly, in my case, they were pushing on a wide-open door.

But, to their credit, they present the arguments of the anti-market faction fairly. The views of the big guns (Aquinas, Marx, Rousseau) are dealt with at length. The book moves on to lesser-known more recent critics. A popular theme: free-market capitalism creates monsters. Eek! (For unpleasant diversion, ask the Google to tell you about zombie capitalism, vampire capitalism, frankenstein capitalism, … well, you get the idea.)

In an interesting twist, Storr and Choi criticize some defenders of free markets, who argue from a (more or less) Gordon Gekko position: "Greed is good." People tend to forget that Adam Smith's famous "Invisible Hand" observation was premised on the "natural selfishness and rapacity" of the rich. Nevertheless, those motives lead to "the interest of the society." There have been plenty of folks since who point out the unsavory moral flaws in the capitalist class, while nevertheless appreciating the prosperity that issues forth as a result of their efforts.

Such critics, pro- and anti-, engage in a lot of speculative handwaving and selective anecdotes. Storr and Choi prefer a data-driven approach, backed up with quantitative research, insights from moral psychology, and experimental market-simulating "games" they designed and carried out themselves. (I assume with hapless George Mason students as the participants.) They observe that the citizenry of countries with market-based economies really do behave better than those in non-market countries. Market-based countries are less corrupt. They are (of course) wealthier, but that wealth is more likely to be turned to worthy, unselfish causes.

Of course, critics point to the "cutthroat competition" of market economies, but (as always) the rejoinder is "compared to what?" Carrying out the research necessary to answer that question shows that the mayhem implied by "cutthroat" is way overblown. The entire idea of markets is that of peaceful, cooperative, positive-sum transactions between buyers and sellers, both sides judging themselves better off. Markets are (in the authors' lingo) "moral training grounds": one way humans learn to be good is by engaging in trade.

As stated, this book is dense, in an academic sense: loaded with references. But (thank goodness) it's relatively easy to skim over the most formal bits and appreciate this book at my dilettante level.

Last Modified 2024-01-14 4:41 AM EDT