Fear No Markets!

“Markets make us less moral”.

That was the conclusion of a German study referenced here (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2013/05/15/markets-make-us-less-moral/) ) at Discover Magazine online. By all means read the article – it’s short – but here’s the gist: participants were offered the chance to “sell” the life of a mouse for a fixed price (10 Euros), or refuse the money and save the mouse. Close to half said they would sell. Then another group was offered the chance to sell the mouse to a second party (who would then dispatch the mouse). A larger number offered to sell the life of the mouse under these circumstances. In a third group, multiple buyers and sellers interacted, with the same potential results for the mice, and with essentially the same (larger) number of respondents willing to ultimately off the rodent. The conclusion? “…a marketplace degrades a person’s morals…” This same study was referenced by Diane Ragsdale in a blog referenced below.

How do you even begin…

In the first place, let’s examine the idea that something as essential to our “who-we-are-ness” as morality or ethics is really degradable by a simple 20-second transaction. Most of us think of our moral persona as something that is developed over the course of a lifetime, some of it bequeathed to us painfully (and joyfully) over years of our childhood and adolescent development by parents, teachers, mentors and even (God help us) siblings and friends. This moral and ethical core being is additionally shaped by the most consequential, life-changing and emotional experiences from 70 or 80 odd years on this planet. If we can burn through even a modest fraction of what used to be called our “moral fiber”, in such a modest transaction, what the hell is it worth? Why did it take us so long to put the damn thing together if it was so easily disintegrated? And to stretch the point just a little further, if such a timid indulgence in markets was able to accomplish such notable moral deterioration, imagine what might
be done by daily participation in such a market, trading mouse-lives by the tens, or hundreds, or mouse-life futures, or mouse-life options (in case you were in need of a hedge)? We would long since be a nation, and indeed a world, of name-your-favorite-mass-murderer-here(s). Doesn’t it seem just barely possible that this potential transaction didn’t change the participants in this study at all – it simply revealed the character they (and we) had already spent
a lifetime building?

This whole thing is reflective of a persistent way of thinking in the non-profit world that distorts our economic vision and drives me nuts. The evil market. This postulation of “The Market” (sometimes Broadway!!), a bloated and dissolute Jabba-The- Hut over here, and the little sisters of the poor non-profits over there, is an utterly false dichotomy and we need to do away with it once and for all. Markets are just a lot of people making decisions with their money. We can argue all we like about the ethics, or the quality of those individual decisions, and whether or not we approve of them, or we can argue about which piece of that spectrum we should be pitching to, or if we want to, whether we are more or less “moral” for that pitch, but the markets are Teflon – our judgments do not stick to them, they don’t stain them or move them or alter them in any way. The markets simply render back to us results, and they do not care what we think.

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