Myth: Markets are immoral or amoral

When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading freely in markets, many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The first myth and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.

Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism.

Myth: Markets are immoral or amoral

Myth: Markets make people think only about the calculation of advantage, pure and simple. There’s no morality in market exchange, no commitment to what makes us distinct as humans: our ability to think not only about what’s advantageous to us, but about what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral.

Tom G. Palmer: A more false claim would be hard to imagine. For there to be exchange there has to be respect for justice. People who exchange differ from people who merely take; exchangers show respect for the rightful claims of other people. The reason that people engage in exchange in the first place is that they want what others have but are constrained by morality and law from simply taking it. An exchange is a change from one allocation of resources to another; that means that any exchange is measured against a baseline, such that if no exchange takes place, the parties keep what they already have. The framework for exchange requires a sound foundation in justice. Without such moral and legal foundations, there can be no exchange.

Markets are not merely founded on respect for justice, however. They are also founded on the ability of humans to take into account, not only their own desires, but the desires of others, to put themselves in the places of others. A restaurateur who didn’t care what his diners wanted would not be in business long. If the guests are made sick by the food, they won’t come back. If the food fails to please them, they won’t come back. He will be out of business. Markets provide incentives for participants to put themselves in the position of others, to consider what their desires are, and to try to see things as they see them.

Markets are the alternative to violence. Markets make us social. Markets remind us that other people matter, too.

2 Comments

  • Anonymous -

    1. The parameters of a free market are informed by market forces
    2. Market forces are precisely human desires
    3. Some human desires are immoral
    4. Some market forces are immoral
    5. The parameters of a free market are informed by an immoral element

  • Shirley Schmidt -

    Would you consider banks a market? If so, what does the crash of 2008 say about the morality of that market?

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