Free markets promote good morals

By Eamonn Butler (August 29 2008)

Nick Spencer of Theos complains 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."

Now I'm as strong a believer in paying unto Caesar as Nick is: there are some things - like St. Augustine's "corporately felt commitments and unarticulated impulses" (what we might call community spirit and human decency) - that are simply outside the market sphere.

But far from eroding such virtues, the market actually promotes them. It rewards us for providing the goods and services that other people need, and it rewards them for providing what we need. It's a vast, efficient, worldwide mutual-cooperation device. And to enjoy its full benefits we have to obey its rules - treating others with honesty and respect.

When resources come through the state, however, such civility and good character evaporates: reward comes not through cooperating with others, but by promoting your claim above theirs an elbowing them out of the way.

Markets are also about choice. They give people options, both in the range of goods and services they strive for, and in the way they choose to deal with others.

And from that, we learn. People need choice to grow - economically, politically and morally. A government that tells us how to behave and what we will consume produces a society of ciphers, not a civil society in which "good character" might develop.

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