Moral markets


I despaired to see Nick Spencer of Theos complaining, in the Telegraph’s Ways & Means blog, that the Right’s “almost monomaniacal focus" on markets “has blinded it to the fact that the market does not necessarily foster ‘good character’ and may, if allowed to eat its way through communities and civil society, actively destroy it."

Oh, not again. It’s the old ‘markets are based on greed’ line. In fact, markets – like much of the rest of our lives – are certainly based on our own self-interest. We wouldn’t bother trading with others if we didn’t get some benefit from the exchange. But there’s a big difference between that and greed.

Would you trade with someone you thought greedy and unscrupulous? Neither would I. Rather, I would trade with someone who seems mindful of my interests and goes out of their way to make me happy. Traders who satisfy their customers are much more likely to survive in the market than ones who try to cheat them. I'd say that makes markets pretty moral.

Markets reward us only for providing others with what they want; and it rewards them for providing what we want. That makes it a vast, efficient, global mutual-cooperation system. And to be a part of it you need to treat others honestly and with respect. With good character and civility, in fact.

When the state dishes out resources, by contrast, it's a decidedly uncooperative fight between different interest groups to wrest as much as they can. And when people get paid because of what they are rather than what they do for others, there is every incentive to put your feet up and skive rather than to do the right thing by others.

No, if it's good character and civil society you're after, you need markets.