This is the second in an occasional series on the relationship between ethics and economics.
Today’s topic is the market. ‘The market’ isn’t anything magical. It’s just the term we use for the abstract entity that is the aggregate of all actual markets for particular goods—the sum total of the market for cars plus the market for poetry plus the market for pedicures and so on. Seen another way, the market is just a whole bunch of people (and organizations) buying and selling stuff from and to each other.
The market is ethically significant. And in general, that significance is positive: markets are generally morally good. There is an ethical justification for markets, such that, with some exceptions for particular goods, where markets do not exist we wish they did.
Reasonably-free markets have three basic moral virtues. One is freedom. In a free market, each of us is free to buy whatever we want, within the limits of our ability to pay. That’s not the only kind of freedom anyone could hope for. The sense in which everyone is “free” to buy whatever model of car they want is not very compelling for those who cannot afford a car at all. But scarcity is a basic fact about the world, and the freedom to make one’s own choices within the confines of such scarcity is hardly trivial.
The second virtue of free markets is efficiency. For very many goods, reasonably-free markets are not just one way to provide those goods: a reasonably-free market is the most efficient way to provide those goods. I’ll have more to say about efficiency in a later installment in this series. But very briefly, we can begin to understand efficiency as a moral value if we consider its opposite, namely inefficiency. Inefficiency means wastefulness, or getting fewer outputs from more inputs. Almost no one is in favour of inefficiency. And in a world where many people see their basic needs go unmet, inefficiency is a great evil.
The third great virtue of the market is its ability, famously described by Adam Smith, to turn self-interested behaviour on the part of one person into (reasonably) good outcomes for others. Smith’s point wasn’t that people are selfish, nor that they should be. His point was that everything you own, everything around you, exists because someone made it. And chances are that—hand-made gifts aside—they made it for you not because they love you, but because they needed to make a living. The market turns my needs into a way of satisfying yours, and vice versa. And it generally happens without someone putting a gun to our heads to make it happen.
But markets also have moral failings. One is the very lack of coordination that I referred to as “freedom” above. That lack of coordination means that markets are notoriously bad at providing for the production of genuinely useful public goods, like highways and lighthouses and police forces and so on. For such goods, it’s much more effective to have some central authority, preferably with coercive powers, collect taxes in order to build them.
Markets are also much better at providing what people want than it is at providing what they genuinely need. So markets produce junk food and video games and porn in abundance, but relatively little delicious health-food and educational games and poetry. Of course, in casting the former as “bad” products and the latter as “good” ones, I’m merely appealing to popular stereotypes. In reality, there’s very little rationale for thinking video games are better than poetry. That’s just an elitist bias. But still, it probably is fair to say that there are products that are out-and-out socially bad: it’s no great bragging point for the market that it has brought us so many brands of cigarettes, for example. So if—and this is a very big if—we were much more certain, and much more unanimous, than we are about what things are genuinely good in life, then it might make a lot more sense just to have governments direct the making and provision of those things.
One of the key starting points for any sane consideration of issues in business ethics is the realization that the market serves a moral purpose. It’s an imperfect mechanism, to be sure, but its value for promoting human freedom and well-being is such that what we ought to think in terms of balancing various market virtues and vices against each other, rather than thinking in terms of the market as an alternative to important human values.