Migration — Serious Thought

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The John Templeton Foundation is publishing a series of essays on the “Big Questions.” Scientists, scholars, entrepreneurs, clergy, philosophers and others contribute their thoughts on the questions that the foundation poses.

The most recent issue is “Does the free market corrode moral character?” My first reaction, before I read the responses of Templeton’s experts, was of course because free markets encourage people to act out of pure self interest without considering the impact on others. Turns out that someone else expressed my thoughts far better and in greater detail. Michael Walzer, professor emeritus and contributing editor of the New Republic, compares our democratic system, in which morality has for the most part been successfully harnessed, with the open market system, where greed rules. He points to institutions and organizations that should constrain the system but have been marginalized: unions, the tax code, governmental regulation of financial institutions.

After I had reflected on the issue some more, I read the essay contributed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who fled the Netherlands after infuriated Muslims killed the director and producer of the film she wrote. She has since become the darling of the right wing in this country. She claims that free markets strengthen, rather than corrode, moral character. She cites the Soviet Union and “pre-reform” China as examples of economic systems that failed because they were not free. But she has made a classic mistake: the Soviet Union and China failed not as economic systems but as political systems. China didn’t face global scandals over adulterated milk, pet food and toys until its markets became “free.” And the oligarchs of Russia are buying up the old collective farms, not to turn them into family-run enterprises, but to run them as corporate factory farms, according to the Times. These are examples of greed pure and simple. The repressive political systems have allowed certain anointed folks to rule. She also faults Saudi Arabia for its “feudal order.” Again, the political regime, not the economic system, oppresses the people. The former chess player Garry Kasparov cites Russia and Saudi Arabia as examples of corrupt states that have amassed huge resources without any accountability.

One commenter to the question points to the “chicken-and-egg” issue inherent in the question, citing the example of the young woman who put her virginity up for sale. If someone else tried to do, it would be called prostitution and be illegal in most places in the United States. I guess one could argue that because she’s doing it herself she’s a good capitalist. He also cites the example of the immoral or amoral workaholic father who can buy better toys for his kids but never has time for them.

I had intended to write more about this topic, but my other obligations are encroaching, so part deux and maybe trois will appear another day.

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