Moral­ity and the mar­ket

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zain Haider

Afriend of mine pays three hun­dred ru­pees to her thir­teen-year old son for ev­ery book he fin­ishes, and five hun­dred for ev­ery ' A' he re­ceives on his tran­scripts. I find this prac­tice to be an odd­ity. How­ever, this act, far from be­ing a charm­ing anec­dote, is also a dis­play of faith, one shared by the in­hab­i­tants of this epoch of time/space; that mar­ket mech­a­nism are the pri­mary in­stru­ments in achiev­ing the public good. Af­ter all, stu­dents some­times out source their col­lege as­sign­ments, na­tions hire mer­ce­nar­ies (peo­ple, gov­ern­ments, states) to fight their wars, cor­po­ra­tions pay gov­ern­ments to pol­lute the en­vi­ron­ment, and cou­ples buy gift cards as ex­pres­sions of their love for each other. Per­haps then, the odd­ness in the act of my friend is, in­deed, all per­va­sive in so­ci­ety and civil­i­sa­tion now.

The com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of ev­ery­daylife is, of course, a vile prog­eny of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, which, as we know, is akin to a gift that just keeps on giv­ing - much like the fruit from a pe­cu­liar tree in a strict gar­den that has brought us to this bar­ren place. A fruit which I have still to taste and, if I may add, had no hand in pick­ing. And as is it is with the fruit so it is with the mar­ket; both con­tinue to gnaw at what the greeks called eu­de­mo­nia - hu­man flour­ish­ing.

The rise of mar­ket rea­son­ing is per­haps partly due to its ap­peal; it seems to of­fer a value neu­tral way in mak­ing so­cial choices based on a few as­sump­tions of util­ity. It prom­ises to play Th­e­seus; to nav­i­gate the labyrinth of the 'big ques­tions' of life. It seems to save us from the dis­com­fort in the de­bate about the na­ture of the goods. It helps us play ostrich. But this is a false prom­ise. It has led to hol­low­ing in public dis­course that we see around us.

Econ­o­mists of­ten as­sume that mar­kets are in­ert - that they do not taint, change or touch the goods that they ex­change. This may be true enough if we're talk­ing about ma­te­rial goods like a flat-screen tele­vi­sion. If I buy a flat-screen tele­vi­sion or you gift me one, the value of the tele­vi­sion won't vary depend­ing on whether or not it was a mar­ket re­la­tion­ship. But the same may not be true if we're talk­ing about health or ed­u­ca­tion or the en­vi­ron­ment. The same may not be true if we're talk­ing about civic ac­tions and hu­man-re­la­tion­ships; child-rear­ing, sex, medicine, vot­ing.

In cases like these sub­ject­ing so­cial prac­tices to mar­ket val­u­a­tion and ex­change may change the mean­ing and char­ac­ter of the goods; the very na­ture of their sym­bolic uni­verse. The mar­ket may do so by crowd­ing out - mar­ket val­ues may crowd out - norms val­ues and at­ti­tudes worth car­ing about. If that's true then to de­cide where mar­kets be­long and where they don't it is not enough to en­gage in eco­nom­ics as if it were a val­ueneu­tral science of choice; which is how eco­nom­ics has pre­sented it­self since the early 20th cen­tury.

In the Amer­i­can Civil war the First Draft law (1863) - Abra­ham Lin­coln's law - for com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice (con­scrip­tion) had a pe­cu­liar pro­vi­sion: ex­emp­tions from the draft could be bought for $300 or by find­ing a sub­sti­tute draftee. There were ad­ver­tise­ments placed in the clas­si­fied sec­tions of news­pa­pers! From a purely util­i­tar­ian and mar­ket stand­point the clause made per­fect sense; both par­ties are bet­ter off, there is Pareto op­ti­mal­ity. In other words, it was worth it for the per­son who of­fered the money and it was worth it for the per­son who agreed to serve in his place. How­ever, as­sign­ing a dol­lar-value to a non-mar­ket virtue (?) led to bloody draft ri­ots in New York City, where protesters were out­raged (and rightly so) that ex­emp­tions were ef­fec­tively granted only to the wealth­i­est U.S. cit­i­zens.Fol­low­ing suit, in 2011, Gary Becker a no­bel prize win­ning economist ar­gued in his book, 'The Chal­lenge of Immigration: A Rad­i­cal So­lu­tion', for mar­ket-based so­lu­tions to the immigration co­nun­drum.

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