The Market is All

A few days ago we had a long conversation about the problems of assuming that markets (and contracts) were good models for handing other social forms (like marriage).  I found this piece from the Atlantic to be an interesting meditation on some of the problems that arise.

The author begins by listing some of the things that are now for sale:
• A prison-cell upgrade: $90 a night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to disturb them.
The right to immigrate to the United States: $500,000. Foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment are eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.
Why not other things?
When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way. The most obvious example is human beings. Slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as a commodity, to be bought and sold at auction. Such treatment fails to value human beings as persons, worthy of dignity and respect; it sees them as instruments of gain and objects of use. 
There are some weak points in the overall argument, and some examples that don't strike me as being a strong as the author suggests.  However, his summation seems quite right to me.
In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence....  [Market reasoning] empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy...  
This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today. 
A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they do not belong. 
This could be seen as anti-conservative, insofar as support for market-based models is a core feature of current conservative thinking.  Or, it could be seen as profoundly conservative, insofar as support for traditional and religious insight into deeper issues of the human condition is a bedrock feature of conservatism.

However we resolve the question of labels for the position, though, the position strikes me as correct.


A related concern:  when we say that the market decides, what we really mean is that the buyer decides.
For centuries, my predecessors and I have been inculcated with what has come to be called the “Hippocratic Ethic.” This tradition holds that I am ethically required to use the best of my knowledge to recommend to my patient what I consider to be in my patient’s best interests—without regard to the interests of the third-party payer, or the government, or anyone else. 
But gradually the medical profession has been forced to give up this approach for what I like to call a “veterinary ethic,” one that places the interests of the payer (or owner) ahead of the patient. For example, when a pet owner is told by a veterinarian that the pet has a very serious medical condition requiring extremely costly surgery or other therapy, the veterinarian presents the pet’s owner with one or more options—from attempt at cure, to palliation, to euthanasia—with the associated costs, and then follows the wishes of the owner.


Texan99 said...

Slavery wasn't wrong because a price was put on the useful labor of a human being. It was wrong because the price was not paid to the human being who was going to do the work, but to a third party who was controlling the human being by force, and it was paid by a new "owner" who was going to continue controlling the human by force.

Every time we object to a market approach for determining how to allocate the scarce good stuff, we have to decide by what other means the decision should be made instead. It may be wrong to make kidneys available for money, but since there aren't enough kidneys to go around, there has to be another system -- such as a board that decides whose need is greatest and who is the best surgical risk. Money will enter into that calculation, too, unless everyone involved is donating his time. If they're donating their time, someone's paying their bills.

We can exchange value by voluntary personal transactions, or someone else can decide what we get and who will bear the cost of providing it.

Grim said...

Slavery is wrong for both reasons, I would say: both because it was involuntary, and because it was improper. Otherwise we would have to license voluntary sale of self into slavery (once a very common practice in Europe).

If we are committed in some sense to the dignity of the individual, then we have to set a floor beneath which we will not allow that dignity to fall. We must say that no man shall be a slave, even if he would be one.

William said...

Reguarding the update: The problem isn't in the information presented ("Hippocratic" v. "Veterinary") it is rather to whom it is presented and who makes the decisions. I would like to know palliative options as well as attempts at "cures" if presented with say, cancer. As long as the decision is mine, even if I already made the decision with the insurance policy I chose years ago, it is just. If Anyone else makes that decision for me, it is not.

William sends.

douglas said...

"We must say that no man shall be a slave, even if he would be one."

Seems to be an issue we're coming up against yet again...