Markets encourage us to see strangers as allies in our efforts to improve our lives, rather than as enemies to be plundered and eliminated before they plunder and eliminate us. A greater understanding of this feature of markets would improve the publics moral appraisal of stereotypical market behavior.
Making a convincing moral case for markets is difficult. The approach most often taken is to point to the desirable outcomes motivated by markets, many of which can be described as moral. Markets are unequaled in reducing poverty, improving environmental quality, decreasing discrimination, and providing opportunities for social and economic advance based on freedom and responsibility. These and other desirable market outcomes result from a spontaneous process of widespread social cooperation that few understand. Thus, the benefits that markets generate are easily taken for granted, with little appreciation being shown for the markets role in providing them. Even when market outcomes are appreciated, they are morally tainted in the minds of many because they are seen to result from motives that are morally dubious, if not outright immoral.
Stereotypical market behavior fails to satisfy the conditions that people associate emotionally with morality. One can make the case that given the right institutional arrangements, the pursuit of self-interest is a virtue on instrumental grounds, but few will be convinced. People do not evaluate morality entirely or even primarily in terms of outcomes, but in terms of the motives and means by which outcomes are generated. The motive of self-interest and the means of impersonal exchanges rank high on very few peoples scale of morality. As Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, The stock exchange is a poor substitute for the Holy Grail ( 1950, 137).
Dwight R. Lee is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Affiliated Visiting Faculty Fellow in the Institute for the Study of Political Economy in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.