James T. Summerhays is Senior Executive Editor with BYU Studies Quarterly. His views do not necessarily represent those of the BYU Studies editorial board or its sponsoring institutions.
The great advantage of market forces is their moral neutrality. The great disadvantage of market forces is their moral neutrality.
In former economic times, many more aspects of life were considered morally sacred, so sacred that a price could not be placed on them. Today, it seems that market forces are making it possible to buy anything in the world—as long as the price is right. The problem is, by definition, placing a price on something formerly considered priceless automatically cheapens it.
Considering recent history, our enthusiasm for the ineffable power of free markets is understandable. The Cold War during the 1960s and 1970s was something of a vast experiment between two superpowers. Which economic system would win the day, central control or free markets? With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the answer to that question seemed obvious.
Beginning in the 1980s, a new era of market confidence and market deregulation swept through the United States. No other economic system proved as efficient in producing, trading, and consuming goods and services. Helped by advances in technology, no other economy in recorded history was so effective at generating so much prosperity. A completely new phenomenon seemed to arise: a good portion of the masses were living life styles formerly reserved for the rich. With the abuses of human capital during the industrial revolution only a distant memory, a laissez-faire corporate economy could do no wrong, or so it seemed.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, everybody was getting in on the act. Using the United States as a blueprint, nations throughout the world refashioned their economic systems to allow for more freedom. This cornered many of them into reforming their political systems to allow for more freedoms as well. While we were justifiably marveling at the mighty political influence that simple economics could wield in creating new democracies, a problem was developing behind the scenes.
The problem? Market forces were slowly overshadowing spiritual and moral forces. Capitalism seemed to be informing our worldview in areas having little to do with money. Why? Because the realms where money did not change hands were shrinking.
Today, free markets, so very valuable and desirable in their place, are encroaching into family life, community life, religious life, public life, and even life itself. Free trade no longer applies only to the exchange of material goods. In an ironic twist, the free market economy sometimes acts rather imperial, looking for new markets to colonize, even if that means incentivizing people to sell advertising space in their personal lives (think reality TV) or on their bodies (recently, a mom was paid $10,000 to tattoo an online casino’s website on her forehead).
In modern life such examples abound, where placing a price on something formerly considered priceless automatically cheapens it. Consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where private contractors actually outnumber U.S. military combatants. It doesn’t matter how necessary such an arrangement might be; to civilians back home, it all looks suspect. With big money involved, the citizenry easily becomes jaded. Something must be rotten in our motives for war, they reason, because private contractors are benefitting—to the tune of billions of dollars—from a publicly-funded endeavor. Such an assessment may be completely unfair. But the fact still remains that when we fight a war to protect our homes, our families, our precious freedoms, the meaning of citizenship takes on a certain sacredness; when we merely outsource the war effort, all sense of honor disappears.
The war is just one example demonstrating how market rationales have the uncanny ability to remove all moral spark from public life. Perhaps the majority of us prefer it that way. After all, markets do not judge our demands; they simply supply them. The market does not discriminate and ask if certain demands for goods and services are more noble than others. It simply asks that we be a little louder in expressing our preferences—whether noble, ignoble, or deplorable—so that it can supply those preferences more efficiently.
If consenting adults are willing to pay for something that is clearly harmful, say, illicit drugs, and other consenting adults are willing to supply the harmful drug, pure markets forces will merely calculate supply and demand and come up with a price. The market will not calculate the moral cost. We, as individual consumers in a free market economy, get to choose what’s moral or immoral. For that reason, we tend to love free market reasoning. Like a well-trained puppy, it is always eager to play, always loyal and obedient to our demands, and never judges us.
But when we weren’t looking, that cute and cuddly little puppy grew into a wolf.
Our hesitation to combine moral and spiritual considerations with our love for free markets has exacted a price far above what we bargained for. By side-stepping moral and spiritual considerations from public policy, we have left a vacuum in the market of ideas, and that vacuum has been filled by the market of commerce, in all its amoralglory. Hence, market triumphalism has pushed traditional moral philosophy into a lonely corner.
Few areas remain where moral considerations prevail over markets. Buying and selling human beings as commodities in a slave trade is still considered a reprehensible, dehumanizing practice. Until recently, governments almost universally assumed that the formation of a family within the bonds of marriage was considered a priceless benefit to society, and they vigorously sought to keep market forces away from that relationship. Governments would not allow sexual relations between a man and woman to be bought and sold as a commodity. Sexual union built on moral considerations such as marriage, love, and lifelong commitment—that’s the stuff that made the world go round.
At least that was once the consensus. Supreme Court rulings on pornography have effectively deregulated this and made it legal for a man or woman to sell their sexual acts as a commodity to third-party viewers. While legal experts can argue whether this should be considered prostitution or not, one fact remains—what was once considered priceless now has a price attached. The result? An automatic cheapening. Few people, not even pornographers, would argue that sex is considered more sacred today than it was fifty years ago, before sex became a market-driven multibillion-dollar industry.
Today, what were formally public trusts are being outsourced to private enterprise. For-profit insurance companies unduly influence how doctors are allowed to treat their patients. Private security officers outnumber public police forces by almost double. Hospitals and prisons are increasingly being privatized. Private advertising is now found in public schools and on public television, politely identified as “underwriters.”Companies market a wide array of “assisted reproduction” methods, where those looking to get pregnant pay thousands for the “designer genes” of athletes. Fire departments, the icons of public service and sacrifice during the 9/11 attacks, are in rare cases being privatized—and if you don’t pay your monthly premium, they let your house burn down. Even Obamacare requires uninsured citizens to buy private insurance if they opt out of the public option.