The Moral Vulnerability of Markets

LONDON -- Today, there seems to be no coherent alternative to capitalism, yet anti-market feelings are alive and well, expressed for example in the moralistic backlash against globalization. Because no social system can survive for long without a moral basis, the issues posed by anti-globalization campaigners are urgent – all the more so in the midst of the current economic crisis.

It is hard to deny some moral value to the market. After all, we attach moral value to processes as well as outcomes, as in the phrase “the end does not justify the means.” It is morally better to have our goods supplied by free labor than by slaves, and to choose our goods rather than have them chosen for us by the state. The fact that the market system is more efficient at creating wealth and satisfying wants than any other system is an additional bonus.

Moral criticisms of the market focus on its tendency to favor a morally deficient character type, to privilege disagreeable motives, and to promote undesirable outcomes. Capitalism is also held to lack a principle of justice.

Consider character. It has often been claimed that capitalism rewards the qualities of self-restraint, hard-work, inventiveness, thrift, and prudence. On the other hand, it crowds out virtues that have no economic utility, like heroism, honor, generosity, and pity. (Heroism survives, in part, in the romanticized idea of the “heroic entrepreneur.”)