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The Morality of Market Behavior

This is the winning entry for the September Thorpe-Freeman blog contest. You can read the original article here.

Fred Foldvary’s article “Do Markets Promote Immoral Behavior?” in September’s issue of The Freeman considers an important question for defenders of markets—the moral status of market behavior. While a popular and scholarly consensus sees markets as necessary for growth and a useful technique for allocating resources, it nonetheless regards market institutions as either a necessary evil or morally neutral. Thus, markets occupy a fragile position in which they’re tolerated, but constantly under suspicion.

Foldvary argues against the conclusions of a recent study in the journal Science, which apparently shows that a simple isolated choice to be paid $10 or save a mouse’s life produced morally superior outcomes to those of an extended market. For the purposes of this post, however, the conclusions of the study are irrelevant. What matters is Foldvary’s framework for arguing against the study, which is flawed.

In brief, Foldvary wants to argue that the moral basis of markets reduces to consent. Despite the appealing tidiness of Foldvary’s argument, I think there are two big problems:

First, Foldvary is wrong to build so much of his argument on the moral value of voluntary exchange. Economists usually assume that exchanges will be mutually beneficial only if the exchange is voluntary, on the assumption that people are the best judge of their own preferences and that third-parties aren’t any better. While this is a useful statement of epistemic modesty by economists, it doesn’t tell us anything by itself about the fundamental moral value of voluntary exchange. As Nozick once asked: why should freely-made choices be worthy of respect in and of themselves? In the case of markets, Foldvary thinks we can understand their moral basis from the fact that buyers and sellers voluntarily participate. But his inference is ill-founded. There is nothing about voluntary action as such that makes it either moral or immoral.

Second, his account talks past critics of markets rather than to them. Critics of markets often want to block even market transactions that are clearly voluntary, which suggests that the interesting disagreement is over something else. Arguing that paying your kids to read, or charging your neighbor for using your generator after a hurricane, or charging for sex, is acceptable if and only if it’s voluntary misses the nature of the objection to those transactions.

So what’s a better way to argue for markets? Foldvary is right to separate “markets” from “the buying and selling of things.” A principled distinction needs to separate commerce from extortion, crime, and non-consenting trades. While I can’t specify such a principle here, it clearly should include features like consent, reciprocal benefit (both parties are better off) and non-deception (for example, -disclosure of certain information). Such a principle would show the necessary and sufficient moral conditions an exchange must meet to be part of a market. In particular, it would show self-interest isn’t the only condition for markets to function.

Market defenders should also frame the moral value of market exchange in terms of its constitutive role in a well-developed life. Deirdre McCloskey emphasizes the role of virtues, or habits of mind and character, beyond mere prudence in capitalist life, and John Tomasi argues that economic liberty commands respect because it enables us to develop faculties of agency and personality. These theories give a thicker and more satisfying account of voluntary exchange’s value.

Furthermore, defenders of markets need a way to distinguish the circumstances in which markets are appropriate from those in which other norms of distribution. Hume and Hayek argued  that the rules justice only applied to a particular set of material and motivational circumstances including the relative scarcity of goods and  limited benevolence. Other norms apply to family life, for example, where our sense of benevolence is stronger. Defenders of markets should recognize that there is a real and inevitable tension between our small group or intimate life and our lives as members of an extended-but-impersonal social order. This tension, in fact, provides a powerful explanation of where objections to markets arise–a misapplication of norms from small group life to extended society. Rather than a concession to critics, defenders of markets gain a more powerful and attractive theory of the market’s role and function in human life when they themselves recognize the particular circumstances in which market norms are appropriate.

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