The Market Knows All

Catherine and I have been talking over the last week or two about the difficulty of discussing moral and ethical choices in our society when the discussion takes place in the language of economics. Free market capitalism is a well-oiled machine at this point, churning along and refining itself with little concern for troublesome bits like ethics or humanity or long-term viability.

Economics is a strange, magickal science to begin with. At certain levels, it’s about describing the interactions between different parties and how they exchange valued things, like work and gold and time and DVD players. On a large scale, trying to predict how a nation’s economy will go depends on very abstract philosophical models. Figuring out what to do to change and shape that direction is even trickier. In many cases, even deciding what we’re measuring to determine success or failure is debatable. The only true anchor point of economics is this: Having More Is Good, Having Less Is Bad.

There are lots of ways to extrapolate this into what appears to be an equitable ethical and moral framework. In a large group of people, for example, one might decide that the median valuation of personal net worth is the measure of societal success. Or, perhaps the frequency with which people on the bottom of the net-worth pile advance to higher net-worth tiers. Or perhaps the percentage of people whose net worth is below a certain ‘acceptable’ level. If that number shrinks, we can declare victory.

These valuations, though, still collapse the human experience to a purely economic one. This isn’t shocking – economics is a language, a set of tools, and it doesn’t include the meta-tools to describe the world outside of itself. You can’t describe a work of art in economic terms – only what people are willing to pay for it. You can’t describe a child in economic terms – only the cost of raising it, its potential productivity, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that; theology, for example, doesn’t include very useful tools for analyzing the repercussions of international trade agreements. But increasingly, because economics seems very objective and rational, our society turns to its language, its constructs, to resolve inherently moral and ethical problems.

The concept of “The Market” is an example. Libertarians especially are fond of talking about The Market as if it is Providence, a force that works all events to good, even if we can’t yet see it.

The International Herald Tribune has an interesting (if depressing) article today that highlights the problem. While the main focus of the piece is on Administration restrictions on African AIDS programs, there’s a nugget that highlights the moral neutrality of The Market.

Here in Livingstone, Zambia, I visited Corridors of Hope, a U.S.-financed center for young people that has proved cheap and effective in reducing HIV among prostitutes and long-distance truck drivers. One prostitute in the program is Mavis Sitwala, an orphan (probably because of AIDS) who is supporting her five siblings and one child. She says that truck drivers pay $1 for sex with a condom or $4 for sex without. "At times, you need food or money to pay the rent," she said, "and so even if he won't use a condom, you agree."

In the language of The Market, Mavis Sitwala is simply a free actor willing to do certain things in exchange for monetary compensation. Those who risk more receive more – The Market has put a certain value on sex, both protected and unprotected, and that’s just the way it is. The question of whether what she’s doing is right (or what the truckers who hire her are doing right) can’t really be considered. The only reason to intervene is if, say, Mavis’ actions cause a ripple effect of economically detrimental health care problems.

Terri Schiavo’s case recently highlighted the issue. A Christian acquaintance of mine said that we should work to build a Culture Of Life, to prevent anyone from being taken off life support. I pointed out that this would take metric tons of money – Terri Schiavo is alive as I write this entry only because her husband won a malpractice lawsuit against her doctors and secured more than half a million dollars for her medical care. In low-profile cases, where low income families have no money to pay for the care of an infant or elderly loved one, are we as a society willing to foot the bill? The Market won’t take care of that one – it’s brutal in its efficiency, as any study of insurance industry practices will show.

Are we as a culture willing to make decisions that are ‘economically bad’ but ‘morally right?’

blog comments powered by Disqus