Main Site         

Money isn’t everything, except to a market fundamentalist…

2012 June 14

That is not appropriate, I found myself saying to my 12-year-old the other day. I pulled myself up mentally. Inappropriate? Surely I meant wrong? But there’s more to this than euphemism. To say something is wrong opens us to the challenge of “by whose standards?” But to indicate that it is not appropriate merely seems to bring the weight of society to bear to support our judgement.

There is a parallel device in economics. We let the market decide, which seems to be a neutral non-judgemental method. The market, you see, imposes no belief system. It just maximises individual freedom, wealth and choice.

This is, of course, bunkum. If you elevate what the jargon calls “utility maximization” to become your primary belief you have made an ideological choice. Because in truth there are some big issues on which neutrality is not possible. If efficiency and incentives are the “cornerstone of modern life”, as the supposedly rogue thinkers who wrote Freakonomics suggest, we are left with a pretty diminished view of what it is to be human.

The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel catalogues what has gone wrong in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs? Is it right to pay drug addicts to be sterilised? Can we sell citizenship to immigrants or auction places at the best universities to those who will pay most? Is it OK to buy your best man’s speech off the internet, to privatise prisons, outsource torture or hire mercenaries to fight our wars?

In the past three decades market values have crowded out non-market values in more and more areas of life – medicine, education, law, sport, art, sports, even personal relations. We have slept-walked, Sandel argues, from having a market economy to being a market society. And the process frequently involves “bribery” in the sense of bypassing persuasion and “corruption” in the sense of corroding old established values.

Today it is not just the cynic who knows, in Oscar Wilde’s telling phrase, the price of everything and the value of nothing. Of course there are some areas of modern life in which the market does not prevail. At Sunday lunch the pater familias does not carve the chicken and then ask: “What am I bid for this nice juicy leg?” The writer Martin Wroe touched on this recently in a preview talk for the next Greenbelt festival. He told the story of an old lady knitting and pointed out that, were she paid the minimum wage, the cardigan she was making would be worth about £180, though a neater warmer one could be bought in a chainstore for a fraction of the price.

“The woman is not viable. Her work is unsustainable. In economic terms her efforts are comical. She’s not a going concern and never will be,” he said. “But she isn’t producing a cardigan. She is making a gift.”

Economists don’t like gifts. They are inefficient and irrational. How can the giver know that it is what the recipient really wants. A present is, as one wag put it, “a wasteful approximation”. A gift token, or cash, is the only gift that is “optimally efficient”. But if they make little economic sense we all know the emotional value of a gift. Money isn’t anything, except to a market fundamentalist. The problem is that their values are now infecting the behaviour of the rest of us.

So how do we decide on what it is apt for the market to determine and what must be decided by other values? Intuition is not enough. At a St Paul’s Institute talk by Sandel recently a shocking 39 per cent of the audience thought it was alright for blood to be bought and sold. What next? Kidneys?  Most of the blood handled on a commercial basis in the United States comes from the very poor, the homeless and the unemployed. It is effectively, as Rowan Williams has said, “a large-scale redistribution of blood from the poor to the rich”. Issues like euthanasia and abortion are best understood, he says, as “arguments rooted in a deep aversion to anything that encourages us to think of our bodies as a form of property”.

Williams speaks of a “Faustian bargain” presupposed by economists like Keynes. Capitalism was to be allowed to thrive for a time until it delivered a sustainable level of security for all. When that had been done the rapacious and ruthlessly competitive system could  be honourably retired, and our convivial and co-operative motives would be allowed full play. But Faustian bargains, he observes wrily, have a history of turning out badly.

Yet if ordinary people are increasingly alienated from the system there is surprisingly little appetite, even after the 2008 financial crisis, for overthrowing capitalism. And experts are much stronger on analysing the problems than on agreeing a solution.

Perhaps the answers are not to be found with economists and political philosophers. After all, though they claim to practise a type of science that can predict the future and help manage our lives, very few of them forecast the 2008 meltdown – and they seem utterly riven on the way forward. Maybe the answer lies with religion. “If we want to resist this intelligently,” says Rowan Williams, “we need doctrine, ritual and narrative”. That means stories which speak of success and failure but also of the wonder of the incidental.

What faith can also offer is the antidote that says an understanding of human well-being should not centre round the satisfaction of wants. By shrinking the self – and letting go of our wants, rather than forever chasing after them – we establish an alternative reality to materialistic acquisitive and individualist vision which lies at the heart of late capitalism. Only then will we sure-footedly know where the limits of the market truly lie.

From Third Way

One Response
  1. Ian Heywood permalink
    June 15, 2012

    Well, maybe the answer lies with religion – and maybe it doesn’t. The suggestion that religionists are somehow intrinsically less selfish and materialistic than atheists, say, is specious – not to mention the fact that they (religionists) have been known to be just a tad sectarian, violent, callous and brutal. I agree that shrinking of the self is desirable, up to a point, but I’ll continue to try and shrink mine without recourse to faith.

Comments are closed.