Does the market corrode us?

The John Templeton Foundation asked thirteen thinkers this big question: Does the free market corrode moral character?

Some samples from a few of the answers:

Jagdish Bhagwati, University Professor of economics and law at Columbia University:

To the contrary.

For example, many believed that poor peasants would respond to the greater economic opportunities presented by globalization by taking their children out of school and putting them to work. Thus considered, the extension of the free market would act as a malign force. But I found that the opposite was true. It turned out that in many instances, the higher incomes realized as a result of globalization – the rising earnings of rice growers in Vietnam, for example – spurred parents to keep their children in school.

Michael Walzer, professor emeritus in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study:

Of course it does.

To be sure, economic and political competition also produce cooperative projects of many different sorts – partnerships, companies, parties, unions. Within these projects, empathy, mutual respect, friendship, and solidarity are developed and reinforced. People learn the give-and-take of collective deliberation. They stake out positions, take risks, and forge alliances. All these processes build character. But because the stakes are so high, participants in these activities also learn to watch and distrust one another, to conceal their plans, to betray their friends, and – we know the rest, from Watergate to Enron.

Tyler Cowen, Holbert C. Harris Professor of Economics and director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University:

No, on balance.

By placing more wealth and resources at our disposal, it tends to boost and accentuate whatever character tendencies we already possess. The net result is usually favorable. Most people want a good life for themselves and for their families and friends, and such desires form a part of positive moral character. Markets make it possible for vast numbers of people, at every level of society, to strive for and achieve these common human ends.

Some qualifications are in order. Not all markets are “free,” in the sense of having well-enforced laws against aggression and fraud. Free markets also require a certain baseline level of trust and a shared cultural understanding of market rules. “Corrupted” markets, as I would call them, do not meet these criteria. They allow evildoers, such as hit men and the mafia, to commit crimes, and they give deceptive businesses the means to sell tainted or defective products or (borrowing from recent headlines) to pawn off mortgages that are too good to be true.

Robert B. Reich, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley:

We’d rather not know.

Most of us are consumers who try to get the best possible deals in the market. Most of us are also moral beings who try to do the right things in our communities and societies. Unfortunately, our market desires often conflict with our moral commitments. So how do we cope with this conflict? All too often, we avoid it. We would rather the decisions we make as consumers not reflect upon our moral characters. That way we don’t have to make uncomfortable choices between the products and services we want and the ideals to which we aspire.

Read them all, in full (approximately one page each).

What do you think? What is the alternative?

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