Here’s a question that goes to the heart of economics and the social sciences generally: how desirable is the market system?
Our lives are dominated by markets. Whether in working or consuming, we operate in a market economy in which money is exchanged for goods or services. But also financial and product markets determine much of the structure of society, where most things seem to have a price.
But whilst, as a positive statement, we can say that money and markets are all around us, does that make them desirable? Markets provide signals and incentives; but are the signals the right ones? What are the incentives and how do we respond to them? And are these responses optimal?
You will probably have studied various ways in which markets fail to provide the optimal allocation of resources. But what are the limits of markets as a mechanism for social choices? And is there some more fundamental issue about the morality of a society that is organised around markets?
These are questions considered in the following podcast. It is an episode from BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme, hosted by Andrew Marr, with guests Michael Sandel, Diane Coyle and Grigory Yavlinksy. Here are the programme details:
Andrew Marr discusses the relationship between markets and morals with the political philosopher Michael Sandel. In his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel questions the dominance of the financial markets in our daily lives, in which everything has a price. But the economist Diane Coyle stands up for her much maligned profession, and points to the many benefits of a market economy. The Russian economist Grigory Yavlinksy argues against viewing the world of money as separate from culture and society: he believes the financial crisis was merely a symptom of a wider moral collapse, and that it is time to examine the way we live.
(Links to the three contributors: Michael Sandel, Diane Coyle (see also), Grigory Yavlinsky.)
Michael Sandel on Money and Morality BBC Start the Week programme (21/5/12)
Videos and articles
For a range of videos and articles on the morality of capitalism, see the previous post at:
We need to talk about Capitalism (28/1/12)
- What crises are there in current capitalism?
- What, according to Michael Sandel, is the difference between a market economy and a market society?
- Is the market society a relatively new phenomenon, or does it go back hundreds of years?
- To what extent is the greed expressed through markets and encouraged by markets affecting/infecting society and human relationships generally?
- What is the role of morality and trust in determining the desirability of market relationships?
- To what extent does a market economy allow people, rich and poor, to live separately from each other and not interact as joint members of society?
- What are the value systems promoted by marketisation? Should certain aspects of human life be outside these value systems?
- To what extent is the crisis of capitalism a crisis of economics?
- What policy alternatives are there for rebalancing society?
- What is the role of economists in advising on policy alternatives?
At a three-day event from 27 to 29 November, people were given the opportunity to barter for works of art on display at the Rag Factory gallery in London. Works by many famous contemporary artists were displayed, although none of the works was signed and the artist’s name was not displayed.
The idea was that people would barter for works on their own merits rather than because of the name of the artist. People could offer anything they chose. They simply wrote the offer on a slip and then the artist would choose which ever offer appealed to them the most. Offers ranged from a lettuce, a curry and even a song, to a Ferrari and a person’s own kidney.
As Stephanie Hirschmiller writes in the third linked article below, “Bartering has long been a mechanism on which the art world spins – from Picasso exchanging sketches for meals and London’s YBAs running tabs at The Ivy in exchange for pieces of their work to adorn the venues walls. Even Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, home to a slew of famous residents including Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas and William Burroughs would once accept art in lieu of rent from its cash strapped incumbents.”
So is barter a realistic alternative to the market – at least for works of art and some other items? Does it have any advantages? The following articles consider the issues.
Barter for Art (video) BBC Today Programme, Evan Davis (28/11/09)
Pick up an Emin for a song Independent, Annie Deakin (27/11/09)
Barter Economy The Handbook, Stephanie Hirschmiller (24/11/09)
Don’t believe the hype New Statesman, Stephanie Hegarty (27/11/09)
Saving on Art the Old-Fashioned Way New York Times, Alice Pfeiffer (23/11/09)
- What are the necessary conditions for successful barer to work? Can it ever be an efficient form of exchange?
- What are the advantages of barter over normal market exchange with money and prices?
- For what other products and services might barter be an appropriate form of exchange?
- Do you take part in barter at all? If so, under what circumstances and why?
The article linked below is a blog article by George Monbiot looking at the rise of neoliberal economic views and discussing whether these are simply an intellectual justification for the rich and powerful to reinforce their position.
How the neoliberals stitched up the wealth of nations for themselves Guardian (Comment is free) (28/8/07)
||Write a brief summary of the neoliberal views of the founder of the Mont Pelerin Society – Friedrich Hayek.
||Explain the neoliberal argument that “….. we are best served by maximum market freedom and minimum intervention by the state. The role of government should be confined to creating and defending markets, protecting private property and defending the realm.“
||Discuss the view espoused by George Monbiot in the article that neoliberal policies like “minimal taxes, the dismantling of public services and social security, deregulation, the breaking of the unions” serve to make the elite even richer and simply act as a “wealth grab“.
China, in a contentious new law, has given its people additional private property rights and protection of private assets. Many were worried that this eroded fundamental socialist principles, and it can be argued that this moves China further towards becoming a market economy.
China announces new property law BBC News Online (9/3/07)
China passes new law on property BBC News Online (16/3/07)
||Examine the implications for the Chinese economy of the new additional property rights.
||Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the new law giving additional private property rights.
||Assess the extent to which this moves China closer to being a free market economy.