I love that quote from William James. I too want to be done with the old paradigm of politics and economy. I feel, as many must, that the last thirteen years have wrenched it from me. There’s so much tired rhetoric spewed on Facebook and other social and news platforms, and the official “news” organizations traffic in as much sensationalism, hyperbole, and status quo worship as they ever have. Across the debate spectrum, there are those screaming that the free market is the culprit, that we need more regulation, and there are those who say the free market is beyond reproach and is the only construct we need. None of that goes deep enough for me. I think there’s a higher view to take on all of this. Indulge me, if you have a few minutes.
Isn’t a market, really, just an atmosphere? The decisions, transactions, interactions made within it are really what define it. And what is the variable in those decisions, transactions, interactions? Their quality, or dare I say, their morality.
Please don’t bristle at my use of that word — a perfectly useful one that has been hijacked and trampled on by religion. Consider this definition of “moral” from an 1828 Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language — “In general, ‘moral’ denotes something which respects the conduct of men and their relations as social beings whose actions have a bearing on each others’ rights and happiness, and are therefore right or wrong, virtuous or vicious.” So as social beings our “actions have a bearing on each others’ rights and happiness?” Who would have known?
Continuing, what type of markets should responsible adults aspire to? I would think just, moral, and free. But does “free” automatically translate to “moral?” Clearly not. The moral part is a daily, hourly decision. Seems to me, it is a decision to live fearlessly, with honesty, creativity, cooperation, gratitude, and charity. Those are the things that define a healthy relationship, family, community, business. They also should define a healthy market. In such an atmosphere, extremes are foreign and rare, while harmony is the norm as equilibrium is maintained through constant, natural adjustment. That’s the message that gets lost in all of the academic and political debates about markets and economics and the inevitable government fixes, layer after ineffective layer, that flow from them.
I love the idea of a free and moral market. It’s not something a government or a lack of government can foster. It’s a cultural commitment. A daily decision. But it seems illusive, as power aggregates when we allow greed and selfishness to displace the respect for “each others’ rights and happiness” that I mentioned above — the moral part. And then we turn to the quick fix of centralized authority — which is simply another version of the problem, when you think about it. And as a result, we gradually lose our freedom. It’s not that some invisible hand acts upon us. We just collectively, out of fear, drink the poison, thinking it will ease the pain resulting from of our neglected individual responsibilities. We put some subset of the community in charge. And of course, not one of us can exercise that kind of power with lasting virtue, because we can’t transfer the responsibility of the many to the one, or the few. Would any of us ask our neighbor to breath for us? That would be stupid. So why do we ask governing bodies to regulate our respect for each other? When you think about it, abdicating our most personal individual responsibility as a social people is insane. It won’t work, and it doesn’t work with our economy either.
What is the real currency of our lives, that which gives us real power and happiness? In my experience, it is honesty, creativity, cooperation, gratitude, consideration, charity. That’s also the stuff that drives a healthy community of whatever kind, shape, and size. And those things can only be debased by ourselves. No Federal Reserve has control over that. No junk bond trader, no casino-like Wall Street, no off-shoring corporation, no government has control over it. A moral free market is not simply one of many options for how an economy can run. It is the very definition of economy — an atmosphere of honesty, creativity, cooperation, gratitude, and charity that all people deserve to live in. It’s the natural way to live. And those qualities that define it are the true substance of it. The market is just the framework. We get out what we put in. When we focus on the many theories of framework over the qualities we bring to it as participants, we lose the morality.
So why don’t we demand what is natural to us? Why must we always start from a standpoint of accepting less? It’s all making me consider my motives, anyway. Do I care about my neighbor’s rights and happiness? Am I living in and helping to create a moral, free market. If so, then it is in me and I’m really just carrying it around. And the currency of this moral market — gratitude — will flow to me and through me. That’s an ideal, I think, we can all aspire to, and the only economic philosophy that makes any sense to me anymore. Do I think it will happen tomorrow? No. When? Maybe never. But I aspire to it. I think down deep, we all do. And maybe we could take our aspiration a little more seriously since not doing so has really messed up the place.