Can the global markets be moral?

There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about ‘happiness economics’ (James Naughtie on Radio 4, Professor Michael Sandel presenting the set of Reith Lectures).  When I first heard the term I thought: ‘ Oh, no, this is another of those hip-hip-hurrah movements of the you’ve-got-the-right-to-and-should-be-happy-all-the-time type!’  But actually, this does not refer to the supposed happiness you will feel once you have consumed, acquired, possessed or done whatever the advertisers want to sell you.  Instead, this is about something that has become deeply unfashionable in recent years, namely thinking about other people and their general well-being.

It’s also about reintroducing the concept of ethics and values into the marketplace.  It’s about putting paid to the myth that markets are pure mechanisms that have no effect on the people and goods with which they operate.  It’s about acknowledging that prosperity and consumption may not make us as happy as perceived fairness and equality.

I never thought I would catch myself saying this.  I come from Romania and have spent a large chunk of my childhood under Communism, so I certainly embraced the ‘free market economy’ with gusto when it became available to us.  Ah, the freedom to be selfish, to operate in a world where self-interest and self-development is admired rather than regarded with suspicion!  So much better than to be a socialist do-gooder!  Admittedly, how could anyone take socialist ideals seriously while living in a society where they were trumpeted in every publication yet being cynically trampled underfoot in practice?

I am not convinced that Denmark is quite the perfect model of contentment and of a just, egalitarian society (and Naughtie does point out some of his concerns in that respect, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8166000/8166798.stm ).  Even if it were, is it a model that poorer, more diverse, less ‘obedient’  countries can truly emulate?

  I liked Michael Sandel’s comment at

http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/rmhttp/radio4/transcripts/20090609_thereithlectures_marketsandmorals.rtf

 that it is all too easy to settle for efficiency when it comes to markets, because it is the sort of thing that will offend no one.  However, what we should be having, he argues, are robust debates and moral arguments, welcoming all sorts of new and previously marginalised voices.  It’s time to address some of the big ethical questions about globalisation, instead of relying on the markets to muddle through.

Is it possible to make markets more moral?  Is it possible to make bankers more aware of the effect they are having on individual people?  Can we harness greed and self-interest for the common good?

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