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Why there is No Such Thing as Free Market Morality



I posted this on my blog in 2013:

Here is a nice blog post from the New York Times online that explains why there is no such thing as “Free Market Morality.” ::

The point of the blog piece is that there are many circumstances where free markets fail abysmally in creating moral, or even minimally acceptable, outcomes.  For example, some people are in possession of lands and properties that were bequeathed to them by their parents and grandparents.  The possession of these lands allows them to be rented out for the production of crops or livestock.  When there is a shortage of such land, high rents can be charged and a tenant farmer can be in the position of paying almost as much in rent as he/she will receive in value of crops produced.

Is it fair for a person to work for a year and receive next to nothing in return, just because there is very little land available?  At the same time, landowners could be making a nice profit on their crops because they don’t have to pay anyone rent.  Is the owner a better person because he/she has inherited the land used to make a living?

Here are the questions to ask yourself, if you think “free markets” are truly just

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?


It is clear that some people are born, or are placed into, a position in which they are more advantaged than other people.  Such people are morally obligated (in my book) to share some of their advantage with others.  Notice that I said SOME of their advantage: a part of one’s advantages are due to circumstances beyond their control– thus a portion of their rewards is fairly meant to be shared with others.

In addition, some people are smarter and/or more talented than others.    Such bright people are free to use their abilities to create and to sell their works, but it is not fair for them to cheat or misguide people and gain advantage over them in that way.  This applies particularly to charging higher interest rates or making contracts with hidden clauses because you can fool people into doing so.  While someone with a brilliant singing voice may fairly claim their rewards, a portion of their payback is related to sharp dealings by clever lawyers.  Not all of this is fair, and some should be shared.

Finally, if you perceive a danger and have the opportunity to rescue others or warn them in time, you are morally obligated to take whatever measures you can reasonably perform.  However, there is no legal requirement to do this and there are certain legal complications that appear when one tries to save another and fails (despite their best efforts in many cases.)

There are legal fences around a person’s ability to give away one’s work product (and freedoms) to another which prevent a person, despite all exigencies, from giving away what little freedom one has in order to survive.  These legal rules can be circumvented in most cases with clever language that, in practice, can reduce a person low in status to near-vassalage to a person or corporation with high status.

For example, non-disclosure agreements (a near-universal piece of contract language for underlings to He who must not be named) [this sentence added today] can abrogate a person’s right of free speech in exchange for employment.

In the extreme case, it is not possible to sign oneself into slavery.  This should make it clear that there is a basic principle of fairness, that applies to almost everything.  It is also reciprocity.  Anything that you don’t want done to yourself, you shouldn’t do to anyone else.  And anything that you want done to yourself should also be done to everyone else.  (Almost everything.)

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