Market Economy, Market Society?

Last night I attended BBC Radio 4’s first Reith Lecture of 2009, given by Professor Michael Sandel, and it was quite inspiring. “Markets and Morals” led off his questioning about “A New Citizenship”, and they were good questions.:

  • When did we shift from a market economy into a market society? Where was the debate?
  • If market economies have directions and contraints and can be shaped, why have we been unable to realise that markets also have norms which crowd out non-market norms?
  • How can new attitudes be cultivated if individuals or organisations can buy their way out of them?
  • Have we lost our moral compass as a society, or is that a subjective notion? What attitudes do we want to encourage and how?

I didn’t agre with him on all his conclusions. For someone who steadfastly refused to be characterised as an economist it was interesting to see such a reliance on markets for his answers. Granted he claimed in response to a question that morals and markets can no longer be unpacked from one another, but I’m not sure that’s true. The difficulty really came, in similar fashion to the debates at the Convention on Modern Liberties, when trying to figure out how to have this societal debate on where we want to go. When markets (which do have self-perpetuating norms) are the owners and determinants of opinion in this country, how on earth can we reposition our society in relation to markets? Most newspapers and TV news organisations have no interest in fostering this debate, largely because of an attitude that the profit motive precludes them from needing to. The BBC, in responding to market forces which its charter doesn’t require it to do, also makes the problem immeasurably harder. Granted most people may want to watch “Match of the Day” or “Only Fools and Horses”, but the corporation’s charter doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. There is no reason why they couldn’t programme accordingly on BBC1, but aside from concessions on “Question Time” or “Newsnight” on BBC2, you’ll see they won’t.

I’d argue that perhaps the best way forward, in the light of what’s going horribly wrong with political life in the UK right now, is a written constitution and a constitutional convention. A written constitution can enshrine human rights in a far less messy way than say the Human Rights Act now. Whilst its hardly a flawless instrument (Gitmo anyone? Patriot Act?) it could determine the shaping and relevance of not just civil and political human rights, but social, cultural and economic human rights too. It would answer Sandel’s question of where the market belongs and where it is best kept at a distance, with the advantage of the answers being determined by the entire country rather than a now discredited political elite. How do we value areas of civil society which haven’t been traditionally associated with markets? Not by markets, I think.

“Markets and Morals” is transmitted on BBC Radio 4 on June 9th at 0900 BST.


One response to “Market Economy, Market Society?

  1. “When markets (which do have self-perpetuating norms) are the owners and determinants of opinion in this country, how on earth can we reposition our society in relation to markets?”

    One way of opening up the debate on this is to consider outcomes of persuing certain models of behaviour, like materialsm, markets and consumerism. Another is to consider the basis of our individual and collective humanity.

    Consider the following statement:
    ‘It is unrealistic to imagine that the vision of the next stage in the advancement of civilization can be formulated without a searching reexamination of the attitudes and assumptions that currently underlie approaches to social and economic development. At the most obvious level, such rethinking will have to address practical matters of policy, resource utilization, planning procedures, implementation methodologies, and organization. As it proceeds, however, fundamental issues will quickly emerge, related to the long-term goals to be pursued, the social structures required, the implications for development of principles of social justice, and the nature and role of knowledge in effecting enduring change. Indeed, such a reexamination will be driven to seek a broad consensus of understanding about human nature itself.’

    This small paragraph is an extract from a far reaching and profound document The Prosperity of Humankind from the Baha’is. It takes a religious perspective. It is worthy of study, debate and further comment, and is directly related to questions arising from a consideration of A New Citizenship.

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