The Moral Ecology of Markets

Book Review

The Moral Ecology of Markets

Read October 2009

By Daniel Finn

Finn points out the arguments for and against a free market and limited government. I can tell he is favorable to a muted market approach, but he also praises the wealth and higher levels of prosperity markets have created since Adam Smith.

Sometimes his jargon was murky. Examples could have helped. Why not include stories?

I especially appreciated his Moral Warrants for Self-Interest and Markets, ten points, and his amplification of them, as well as his Moral Criticisms of Self-Interest and Markets, eight points and his explanation of them.

If I had to simplify this contest, I would simply show that where markets have been most honored, people have many more choices, prosperity, imagination and creativity, rights of religion and expression, and that they and their nations are strong and flourish, but where markets are suppressed, death, despair and penury result. To the extent that markets rule, flourishing is seen. All along the spectrum, from totalitarian utopianism, to Western Europe’s hampered capitalism, to Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States, the evidence resounds.

I can sympathize with the desires of market modifiers, but when they covert their whims into concrete policies, impracticality is the result. Some of their lovely desires are a desire for a greater sense of community, for connectedness to the earth and local merchants, for a clean environment, for respect and dignity for the poor and opportunities for them to better themselves. When abstract gives way to concrete action, though, the best way to accomplish those things is not though bureaucratic, centrally-directed, tax-supported programs but through liberty, economic freedom, competition, enterprise, and individualism.

He quoted Hayek, Friedman, Nozick, Buchanan, Hirschman, Rawls, Bernard Mandeville (The Fable of the Bees), Marx, Mises, Adam Smith, Lindblom, Lomasky, Bellamy, Walzer. Some of these I knew, some I did not. One book he referred to was Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society. That seems like a pre-quel to his book, wherein visions of economic policy from both sides of the spectrum are pitted against each other. I think I’ll get that. Walzer sounds far to the left.

I actually saw a little sense in some of the radical feminist views when he put them so mildly. That’s a first for me. I am not shaken from my belief that strong families, structured in the traditional mold, are the best security for children, women and men, and the indispensable foundation for a strong, prosperous society of happy individuals. Yet, as I say, I did see some merit in their position. Economic advancement was the prime good according to them, and in their view, as given by Anne Phillips, it was inhibited by the expectation of traditional family duties. I do not think that personal economic advancement supercedes all goods. But, if you take money gain as the prime consideration, then their observation that unpaid child rearing is unjust and unprofitable holds. You can’t get worldly-rich while staying home reading to your kid.

At the end he called for a more understanding debate. He opposes firmly entrenched positions. People rarely listen to each other. That’s the fault of politics in democracy. To sway voters, positions cannot be nuanced. They must be presented as either-or, black and white, “isn’t that awful!” statements. Arguments lose their political potency when too finely drawn. Maybe the people that can listen to each other are the theoreticians, at least. Maybe that is Finn’s hope.

This was a challenging book, not typical for me. I hoped it would validate my belief in the essential morality of markets, but it set out to question, in a mild-mannered way, the undeniable good that has arisen from the application of markets.

I bought a personal copy and will re-read it, notating.