Is the Market Moral?

Clemenceau once said that war is too important to be left to the generals. By the same token, morality is too important to be left to philosophers, especially where the morality of markets is concerned. Those who see themselves as the protectors of morality are more likely to be antipathetic to markets, whereas those who favor them typically talk about production, distribution, and material wealth--anything but morality.

The market's positive moral features, however, are many. Consider one identified by Adam Smith, namely the link between individual autonomy and self-support through legally free labor. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest," Smith wrote. "Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens."

This passage is a famous statement of the utility of self-interest. But notice its assertion that dependence on others is morally degrading. Thomas Carlyle, and later Marx and Engels, would decry this appeal to self-interest and the related rise of the "cash nexus" as either a dangerous assault on tradition or a source of human self-alienation. At the least, there is the danger that the cash nexus can encourage a mindless commitment to work, and the belief that one's worth comes only from paid labor, leading to fear of dependence on others, or to shunning vital but unpaid activity.

But the flip side of the cash nexus is the freedom and self-determination that comes from overturning customary social relations such as slavery and serfdom, which totally subordinated the individual to the will of a master. Nor does the cash nexus subordinate the individual to the will of the state. This independence was at the core of Hegel's insistence that supporting oneself by earning a living is one of the key ways that we gain a sense of ourselves as individuals.