The inexorable immorality of the market

Russ Roberts, one of the conservatives I find the most worth listening to, posted recently to defend “the market” as morally neutral:

Here is my response.

Russ —

It’s not only a question of what we expect the market to give us. It’s a question of what the market demands.

Because the market, in its disinterest and neverending incentives, will not leave the landscape of morality unplundered.

I appreciate the market, and I see the right to participate in markets as an element of human freedom. But that doesn’t mean I pretend it is morally inert. For me to deny the moral activism of the market would be as myopic as if I were to deny the suppression of human ingenuity and intrepidness under communism.

Russ, you mention institutions of religion, of culture, of arts and academia. And yes, we certainly can build institutions with no connection to the market! But every institution will be subsumed by the market, and its original intentions cast aside, unless a fight is waged constantly against the market.

In a world with perfect human rationality, utilitarianism, and the golden rule, where people measure externalities and track the reliability of providers of goods and information, the market might bend firmly towards positive morality.

But just as communists and anarchists must answer for what communism and anarchism actually are (not merely what they would be if the world were how they would have it remade), so must champions of the market answer for what the market actually is.

The market is credit unions and angel investment. But the market is also pyramid schemes, insider trading, Wells Fargo-style consumer fraud, bait-and-switch offers, get rich quick schemes, lead dust added to spices, flammable insulation quietly switched in, mailers and calls that pretend to be from the government, door-to-door elder fraud.

The market is the slave trade. And in case you protest that the slave trade was the government’s fault, remember that it flourished in plenty of places that did not legalize or sanction it; and understand that government sanction itself was merely one of the many services that the market in slave labor demanded.

I’ve given a litany of bad things. But these are not merely bad things that are bad.

They’re morally devastating to the people who perpetrate them, the people crushed by them, and the people who fall for them. They’re morally devastating for the families, such as three generations of Trumps, who confuse taking successful advantage with virtue. They’re morally devastating for all of the families torn apart emotionally and physically by the secondary effects of the brutal exploitation of the family members’ labor. They’re morally devastating for individuals whose daily interactions with fellow humans are thickly and antiseptically mediated by the bleeding edge of market incentives.

And this gravity of immorality is constant. Start a small business, make it successful — and soon, inevitably, inevitably, there will be voices and pressures pulling it towards maximum permissible immorality.

That means cutting corners to the legal limit — or, often, beyond it, taking fines and punitive repercussions as an acceptable cost.

That means venue shopping, finding other jurisdictions where more immorality is permitted.

That means running competitors out of business, even if it means incurring a large loss, if it means you won’t have a shop where workers could go work instead.

That means colluding with other owners of capital.

That means regulatory capture.

And none of this need be planned centrally; it’s a pattern that happens again and again, in well-intentioned business after well-intentioned business, as if guided by an invisible hand.

There is an inexorable corrupting, degrading, denuding, rapacious drag on all moral existence in any society subject to the market and its calculus.

It makes reasonable people deliver poison to our children’s bodies. It makes reasonable people live lives of lies. It makes reasonable people sell things they know are less than worthless. It makes reasonable people cheat and defraud their fellow citizens.

It makes a mockery of the sanctity of life, a mockery of communities of prayer, a mockery of the honor of hard work. And if it has a leading light like you blind to the extent of its morally disemboweling force, that’s a sign that it makes a mockery of intellectualism, too.

Update: Russ responded:

Independent programmer, chatterbox.

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