Markets and Moral Breakdown

Over the past 50 years there’s been a marked shift in the way in which we think about society. In this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks looks at our use of language one way to evaluate this shift. Words related to individualism have increased in usage, while those related to community have decreased. There is less talk of virtues, with the exceptions of words like ‘discipline’ and ‘dependability,’ as well as those related to fairness.

These, of course, are the virtues of the market. A market is fundamentally a place where individuals assume the roles of consumers and producers and then trade with other individuals. Fairness and dependability matter, but things like ‘modesty,’ ‘appreciation,’ and ‘compassion’ are less important. Some may actually be harmful (i.e. one could be too modest about the worth an object being sold and therefore receive less money for it.)

There has also been a huge rise in the use of the word ‘preferences’ a word that was basically not in use in the 1930s. Preferences are frequently associated with market economics, as the market is based on fulfilling as many individual preferences as possible.

The huge unanswerable question is whether markets are driving the cultural shift away from community and towards individualism, or if the cultural shift is driving markets. It is likely that some of both is going on, and regardless of how or when it started (the printing press? the reformation? the enlightenment? the industrial revolution? protestant work ethic?) the cycle is self-reinforcing. Brooks is only looking at the last half century, although the trend no doubt started earlier and has simply picked up the pace (and been easier to observe) over the last 50 years.

What has become clear is that markets are harming community. Individuals should not be reduced to their roles as consumers and producers. One of the many results of this is an increased need to move in order to find work. As Wendell Berry notes, “Our mobility, whether enforced or fashionable, has dismembered and scattered families and communities.”

Markets are supposed to satisfy preference, not to shape them. And yet in an economy that has escaped its original purpose, Berry notes that ” ‘job creation’ often implies an ability to ‘create’ new ‘needs'”  This is the opposite of what should be happening. The market has done an incredible job of creating vast amounts of wealth and of lifting people out of material poverty. I want to  be clear that markets, properly contained and defined are an amazing tool. Unfortunately, markets have also left many people behind materially. More closely related to this post however, markets have created a form of social, moral, and cultural poverty, by severing connections that used to unite us and removing the expectation of civic virtue; replaced instead by the ideal of mutual self-interest.

To overcome this, Berry suggests, “We need to stop thinking about the economic functions of individuals for a while, and try to learn to think of the economic functions of communities and households. We need to try to understand the long-term economies of places – places, that is, that are considered as dwelling places for humans and their fellow creatures, not as exploitable resources.”


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