2012-08-23

Two (Not Three) Cheers for Markets

Let us give the market its due. As a way to distribute and exchange resources, the market is a wonderful improvement over everything that came before it and most of what has emerged since. This improvement is not merely economic; it is also moral. The market provides a basic fairness. In the market, it doesn’t matter if we agree on anything besides price. Your ethnicity, your religion, your crazy political opinions don’t matter. You pay the money, you get the groceries. Markets are nonjudgmental. They respect your individual preferences, whatever they are. Through markets, the human species learned at last how to engage cooperatively with people we would otherwise despise. We learned to set aside the differences that divided us and just “do business.”

Insofar as “market” amounts to “voluntary (on all sides) distributions through trade” then market approaches are presumed preferable to any nonmarket (and therefore at least somewhat coercive) approach. (Though markets may themselves involve economically coerced actors, a.k.a. "the poor" – and in a variety of circumstances the regulatory need outweighs the presumption in favor of markets.)

When people buy and sell from each other, they don’t have to fight each other for stuff. Indeed, if you’re providing me with goods or services, I have a vested intererest in you staying healthy so you can continue to provide me. Between nations, the rise of markets reduced the temptation to go to war. As the 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat supposedly said (and, at least, would have agreed):
"When goods don’t cross borders, armies will."
When the US passed fair housing legislation in the 1960s, that was a triumph of justice through an insistence that market logic prevail. If your house is for sale or rent, you may not refuse it to someone based on race. Market logic, which cares only about whether the asking price can be met, must trump racial prejudice, we said – and that was an important step toward justice.

In some areas, we need still need more market logic, not less. Market logic doesn’t care about whether a construction worker, or an agricultural worker, or any worker, happened to be born north or south of a line some generals and politicians drew in the sand across the southwest desert a little over 150 years ago. But our immigration policies skew that market logic, and it isn’t fair.

So let us, by all means, give the market its due. We may nevertheless ask whether the market has crept into areas where it is best kept out. It may be fine for private companies working to maximize shareholder profit to run our system of filling the shelves at the stores where we shop. But do we really want private, for-profit companies running our health, our education, our public safety, our national security, our criminal justice, our environmental protection, our recreation? They didn’t used to. I grew up in the 60s and 70s when all those things were public goods and were matters of public policy and nonprofit organizations.

Whatever the market is in charge of distributing goes to those who can pay for it. If there’s enough for everyone – like basic food – then that’s fine. If there’s enough supply for the price to be low enough so that everyone can afford what they need, then, fine, let the market handle it. Also, for things in short supply that people don’t need – like Lamborghini sports cars – let the market handle that, too. Only the rich will get them, but nobody needs them.

Are there are some things that we think ought to be available to everyone, not just the rich? Healthcare, education, public parks, police protection, perhaps?

Are there some duties that we think ought to fall to everyone, not just the less rich? Paying taxes, military service, the same jail cell everyone else gets who has committed the same kind of crime, perhaps?

There’s something else about markets. The market is the perfect cynic. A cynic, as Oscar Wilde said, is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The market knows only one value: price.

When this country, after much struggle, finally ended formal slavery, we recognized that a human being is a value beyond price. Human beings cannot be bought and sold and owned. Children and spouses are, for many of us, life’s greatest value, and we would not want them bought and sold.

Where the market creeps in, it corrodes any other value. When you are paid for reading a book, it’s harder to think of reading as having any other value. The market thus corrupts what it touches.

As LoraKim’s adventure in knee replacement and recovery has dragged on through many more monthes than we’d anticipated, she and I have felt a heaviness of despair from depending upon services from a healthcare system where such huge sums of money go from our insurer to hospitals and doctors. Our insurance is reasonably good, yet it’s breathtaking and saddening to see how much our insurer pays for a few days in the hospital. Even when we aren’t personally paying much, we feel like pawns in a vast scheme of money transfer. The scheme has been set up to maximize that money flow, and our medical care is merely the means to that end. Participating in and depending on that system feels degrading – a diminishment of our intrinsic nonmarket humanity.

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This is Part 5 of "Not For Sale"

Next: Part 6: "Standing Against and Noticing"
Previous: Part 4: "What Shall It For-Profit Us?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Marketplace Creep"