Is the market (in the broad sense of the term) influencing us for the worse? Making us dishonest? Making us materialistic? Making us fat and lazy? Making us shallow? And all in the process, is it displacing God?
Among the most common arguments in criticism of the market with intent to give us pause is the one that points out all the so-called business or corporate “scandals.” This argument is typically given in justification for increased governmental or bureaucratic regulation in one form or another. But ought it not first be determined which institution, government or corporate, is more steeped in scandal and corruption than the other?
Which institution is more prone to promise more and deliver less?
Which institution’s directors are less accountable to its constituency?
In which institution is it easier to get rid of dead weight, or worse, corruptive or destructive weight?
In which institution does inefficiency and mediocrity become more entrenched?
In which institution are we most likely to find cost cutting while increasing service levels?
Which side of the bribe is worse, the side where you promise favorable legislation (or lack of unfavorable legislation) in exchange for “contributions,” or the side where you promise “contributions” in exchange for favorable legislation (or lack of unfavorable legislation)?
To some, the answers to the above questions are rather obvious. One of the main problems with those who argue for increased regulation is the implicit assumption that government is at all effective in making and enforcing regulations, and that such regulations have the desired effects. So, which institution do you trust more, government or corporate? Those who would answer that they trust government more because they believe that they have more control over government than they do over a corporation should ask themselves what the fundamental difference is between their tax bill and their other bills…
The Power of the Market
Another problem faced by pro-regulation advocates is their assumption that when the market performs in desirable ways, that success is owed to governmental regulation and not to ordinary and very complex market forces. Do drug companies refrain from marketing generally unsafe medications primarily because of the FDA, or primarily because they would go out of business if they acted otherwise? Are banks generally a safe place to put your money primarily because of the mass of government regulations, or primarily because if they weren’t, almost nobody would put money in them?
Ok, so then some would argue that the above is just simply evidence of the power of the market over our lives, that indeed, the market is even a stronger force than government, whether we recognize it or not. It’s all a shell game. We believe that government is reigning in “Big Business,” but that’s just what they all want us to think. After all, is power not best assured when those over whom you wield it don’t even recognize that you’re wielding it, or that you even have it?
In the aftermath of 9/11, it’s difficult to make the argument that government has any meaningful limit on the influence it can wreak in our lives. How easy is it to get rid of a corrupt politician, or even just an ineffective one? According to opensecrets.org, in the 2000 election, 79% of incumbents in the Senate and 98% of incumbents in the House were reelected. But, we’ve passed Campaign Finance “Reform.” In some circles, such “reform” is seen as nothing more than measures to further protect incumbency.
The market is not some mechanism that pertains only to the sphere of business. The market, fundamentally, is how a modern world operates in the business sphere, in the political sphere, and to a large extent, in the social sphere. Perhaps people don’t recognize it, but they are exchanging various things all-day and everyday, and the logic that increasingly guides those exchanges is market logic. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
In this sense, one might consider thanking God that we have a market tradition that restrains politicians too. Because, by God, that’s the only thing restraining them at all. It’s certainly not the writings of Thomas Paine, Claude Frédéric Bastiat, or the United States Constitution.
Will science involving cloning, genetic engineering and the like be opened up to inquiring minds because prudes in Washington suddenly saw the light of reason over superstition, or because the logic of the market dictates that they must, in some way, let it go forth?
Efficiency vs. Tradition
So, those who would criticize the market for de-spiritualizing our society and our culture have a point. They’re right. But why they’re right isn’t nearly as interesting a question as why this is happening. Why can politicians stay in power? Why can corporations get what they want from politicians? Why do people in America and elsewhere increasingly seem to be material and consumption oriented?
It’s the logic of markets. There are those who don’t really grasp how markets work, who wring their hands over what they perceive is happening to our culture. Then, there are those who understand the power of markets, and just don’t like the result. Then there are the rest of us who while understanding markets, don’t necessarily see any problem.
The market is a tool. Long before sufficient capital existed in which to utilize this tool effectively, life was dictated by traditions, customs, taboos, beliefs. This was the framework in which things were decided. If one wanted to know how long a woman’s dress should be, it wasn’t the market that decided (which is just the sum total of what the largest market segment want to buy), it was to consult some text, or make reference to some arbitrary dictate, or consult with an “authority.”
So, over the last hundreds of years, there has grown up a great conflict. But, wherein does this conflict lie? Have people suddenly dumped their convictions in favor of whim, or were most really just paying lip service to conviction all this time, and when given the choice between a tradition they really never found much value in, and the value of something they really want, like a bikini or miniskirt, well, it took the relentless power of the market to eventually deliver to them what they wanted.
So, the market controls people, right? The cart leads the horse. Ok, maybe it doesn’t control us, but it influences us. Well, sure it does. Grandma “influences” you too, when she temps you with that second piece of pie. But do we want to advocate “reforms” where we are preemptively not enticed, where we dare not allow ourselves to be tempted?
The market is a value delivery system that works within a logic of maximum efficiency. It is a mechanism whereby we strive to deliver what the most people want, at the lowest cost, in the shortest time. So, if it is that our traditions and culture are being radically modified as a result, does this not simply mean that people value what the market provides them above what tradition provides them?
Culture has always evolved. From the advent of human history it has never remained static. The only difference is that within the framework of the market, people experience cultural changes in terms of years and decades rather than centuries.
But What About God?
So this really gets down to the crux of the issue. There’s an interesting essay on What You Can’t Say. The parallel is what you can’t do. For instance, at a place in time, you could not say that the Earth revolves around the Sun. There was a time when you could not go off and do something that you uniquely find enjoyable on a Sunday. We are now in a time when biologists must be very quiet about the research they are doing in areas of cloning and genetic engineering, for fear of being shut down. What do all these things have in common? Well, the Earth does revolve around the Sun. Spending a leisurely Sunday doing something other than observing the Sabbath is rational enjoyment for millions of people. Scientific advancements hold the real possibility of profoundly changing the very fabric of our lives very rapidly, such as some gene therapy that turns off aging and allows an immediate lifespan increase to several hundreds of years.
So, in addition to being true, rationally desirable, or scientifically feasible, they also have a more fundamental commonality. At their respective times in history, they all threatened and threaten status quo perceptions of God and man’s relationship to God.
Enter the market. What is the market if not a means by which individuals can achieve their heart’s desires without checking with some arbitrary text, or considering some tradition, or checking with an authority, or praying about it? Of course, that’s not to say that most people don’t try to integrate their belief systems into the acquisition of some value via the market. But increasingly, it appears that people are acquiring first and asking questions later.
Indeed, the market is becoming so fast and efficient that people haven’t time to pay much tribute to their traditions, customs, and taboos. After all, the “Sale Ends Sunday!” And so we are left to consider whether that is a good thing, or a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing.
The tragedy, according to some, is that man’s spiritual side is being starved. The market feeds only the material, cold, rational side–leaving the spiritual side to whither and die. In answer, I would ask if there has ever in history been a shortage of shallow people, of gluttons, of slobs, of the uncultured? I would argue that the market simply brings what was always been, up to the surface for close examination. The market is exposing the shallow-minded. I would further argue that it is the market that will be there and best suited to cure such shallow-mindedness as people wake up to the fact that they have zero depth to their being—some of them anyway—and one must ask whether in the end, this process or traditional dogmatism will be more effective in motivating people in some generally straight and narrow appreciation of values and depth.
And if in the end, it turns out that God is forgotten, it will only be through a recognition that perhaps he never really existed at all, and is no longer needed.