Morality in the Marketplace

Michael Sandel wrote in the Atlantic back in April that we as a society have allowed markets to play larger and larger roles in our lives without evaluating whether that role is desirable.  Here is a brief excerpt:

As a result, without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.

The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations?

This series of questions presents an uncomfortable reality.  Michael Sandel gives a bunch of rather benign examples of goods and services available through the market.  As for whether there should be any moral limits on the market, I rather think more unsettling options need to be put on the table.

According to Sandel, a surrogate mother is available in India for $8,000.  But why stop at just implanting a baby in a surrogate mother?  Why not implant other things in whomever you want?  The price varies by the region, but the average price for a slave today is about $90.  Sometimes, women are sold into sex trafficking for $500, or $1000, particularly within Soviet nations after the Berlin Wall fell. In Kenya, the estimated typical cost for having sex with girls as young as 12 was $25.  In Thailand, some prices for child trafficking range between $120 and $160.

I understand that we have a 13th amendment in the US that SHOULD prevent this sort of thing from being legal, but imagine the situation for a moment: you’re an impoverished farmer with no access to reliable clean drinking water, no reliable electricity, and no internet (ye gads!).  You can barely afford to feed yourself, let alone your three children and significant other.  Suddenly, a nice young woman enters your small village and asks you whether you would allow your son or daughter to work in the city for $100 US.  You know that money would be able to feed the rest of your family for at least two months, and you’d be able to buy some farm equipment to make the money last even longer.  Plus, the young woman says that the agreement would last for 6 months, and after that point the child would be allowed to return home.  Do you take the offer?

More importantly, should you have to be in the position where you NEED to take that offer?

Sex Trafficking Child Victims

Or Not For Sale?

Here in the US, we have agreed to put a series of social safety nets that would prevent people from being so impoverished, so in need that they actually NEED to sell their children to survive (the process usually presented as “loaning” children, according to the NPR story).  In effect, we want to limit that particular market, and one of the ways we do this is not just to outlaw it in our country, but to reduce the factors that encourage the formation of that sort of market.

What’s the problem here then?  It hasn’t been enough.  The issue is so bad in Ohio, which not only allows for easy foreign-born trafficking but also local requirement of young girls, that even in today’s polarized politics it is about the only issue on which Republicans and Democrats actually seem to agree.

I think it should be pretty clear by now that I think there should be limits placed on the market system.  There is no way in hell that I want to see a world in which human trafficking is legal, sanctioned, or encouraged.  The government HAS to step in to prevent these unwanted situations from occurring.  It must play a role in keeping markets from taking off.  But what makes markets so dangerous?

Like Michael Sandel wrote, the market is a tool.  It can be used for our benefit or detriment, but it does not concern itself with whether its use is for our benefit or detriment.  It is, in effect, an amoral system–a system without morals.  One of the allures for our relying so extensively on a market system to solve our problems is that we avoid the question of ethics and morals entirely: the market does not respond to ethics, it responds to money.  Look at our financial system if you need proof.  Look at the derivatives market, or sub-prime loans.  Look at the LIBOR rate fixing that happened in the United Kingdom (which had a demonstrable effect here).  Or look beyond the world of finance.  Look at the Enron Scandal, some of which involved shutting down power plants in California to artificially lower the supply of energy to inflate the cost of energy. Look at Consumers Energy at the same period, which did the same thing.  Look at where grocery stores are in your area: they’re centered around where the money is likely to go, almost without a doubt.  Companies and markets go where the money is.  It is as simple as that.

These problems are not isolated incidents.  They are inherent in the very nature of markets.  Money is king, not morals.

I don’t know about you, but I am thankful that we have decided that the government ought to protect our morals from the market.

Image came from a blog whose topic is much more explanatory regarding the basics of sex trafficking than I could go into in this post.  You can find that blog post here.

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