Is There an Intrinsic Morality of the Free Market?
The debate over markets and morality has a long pedigree.
Karl Marx thought, of course, that there was something intrinsically immoral about what he called capitalism based on his notion of “the labor theory of value” which contends that workers are alienated from what they produce by the private ownership of the means of production. A small ocean of ink has been spilt over that debate.
Many of those who see the importance of the free economy for the sustenance of society are quick to outline the defects in Marx’s argument, showing how the economic value of a commodity is not, as Marx contended, predicated on the amount of time, labor and effort a given worker puts into his production but rather, on the subjective use-value of the commodity to the consumer himself.
So far, so good. But another conclusion is often embedded in this legitimate reply to Marx. His critics conclude that rather than the market being intrinsically evil, it is in fact, intrinsically good. That it is intrinsically good, they argue, can be seen by the astounding efficiency of a free economy, in its production of a greater amount of wealth and even a wider distribution of that wealth of the whole of society. Can anyone deny, this line of reasoning continues, that free exchange and the expansion of markets is primarily responsible for the rise in living standard throughout the world when measured in terms of access to things that make life better and easier and even happier? They will point to exhaustive studies that have been done empirically demonstrating the relationship between lower tax rates and less regulation to the general prosperity of nations.
“Isn’t all this a good thing?” they will conclude. Doesn’t this constitute the intrinsic morality of the free market?