Morality and the market
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.