Markets and morality

The John Templeton Foundation this week in London held “A Big Questions Conversation: Does the free market corrode moral character?”

The Templeton Foundation (disclosure: I was a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion) has been taking out ads in various places featuring the expected — Robert Reich — and the less so — Garry Kasparov — on the topic. On its Web site, it has 13 essays and nine videos representing different opinions on the subject. It’s the latest of Templeton’s efforts to get people to think about the morality of the marketplace.

At the London debate were:

  • John Gray, emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics and author of books like “False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism;” Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia”;
  • Jagdish  Bhagwati, professor of economics and law at Columbia University and author of “In Defense of Globalization”;
  • Bernard-Henri Levy, thinker, philosopher and author of books like “American Vertigo” and “Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.”

There’s a video of their discussion here, though I can’t get the video to work in my browsers. There is a transcript on the same page. It is not the most fluid transcript, with the occasional  ‘lazy affair’ for ‘laissez-faire,’ but all in all it’s a good read, perhaps because they don’t talk much about the question, but instead wander all over the economic and socio-political maps.

A few salient comments:

What we have in the world are mixed economies with the state playing a profoundly important role and an increased role.  And I do not expect in my lifetime
any reversion to the kind of economies that existed even a few
months ago.  It is too large a crisis and will require too much
state intervention. — John Brown

…there seems to be a tendency to think that somehow being in markets
is actually going to make you mean, greedy, whatever – I mean,
whatever you want to say.  And I don’t think it’s very – to me
that’s a bit of a welcome Marxist fallacy, that where you work
and what you do really defines your values.  — Jagdish Bhagwati

So I would not say that free market corrodes the moral
character.  I would say the reverse, the moral character, the
decline of the moral values of the democratic society, the decline
of the ideal which was expressed so well by great American,
English and French thinkers through ages this decline has
corroded and is still corroding the system of the free market. — Bernard Henri-Levy

To me, markets themselves are an amoral instrument, but they clearly reflect the interest of market makers, and thus can be instruments of morality, or plain old ethics.

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