The Market and Moral Accountability

Is it morally acceptable for any individual to “look out for number one” in the marketplace — seeking maximum personal benefit at the expense of others? You might say ”no” but an economist will likely say “yes”. Why? Because economists have this theory that, if the economy is truly competitive, there’s nothing you can possibly do in the market to harm others.

If you cheat a customer, they’ll go to the competition. If you underpay a worker, there are plenty of competitive employers around. If you shaft a supplier, there’s no shortage of honest suppliers around. If you squeeze a third-world country dry, there are honest investors around to give them a fair break. In a truly competitive economy, exploitation is impossible.

In fact, the theory of perfect competition declares that all unfair advantages will be weeded out, so that everyone ends up with the same incomes, wealth and consumption levels. All we have to do is tweak the competition laws, and then pull the government out of the economy. Imbalances of power are a leftist conspiracy theory.

Now let me rephrase that opening question. Is it morally acceptable for any individual to “look out for number one” in the marketplace — if they have been convinced by economists that no one else will be harmed? Indeed, others will benefit from your greed if the economy is competitive enough. You have to serve to succeed. So everyone’s a winner, right? How can you be held accountable if you believe you’re doing the right thing?

But of course the economy is not even remotely competitive — except at the lower levels where small businesses are as ruthlessly exploited by the bully classes as any third-world peasant. At the upper levels, it’s an old boys’ club where — wink, wink — they carve up the booty amongst themselves.

That leads to another way of rephrasing that morality question.

Is it morally acceptable for any individual to “look out for number one” in the marketplace — if they’ve been herded by the media to believe we live in a competitive economy where everyone has an equal shot at the good life. You too can join the 0.1 percent if you’re sharp enough.

I don’t have to explain to all but the thoroughly brainwashed — and the brainwashers — that this is bullshit. The obscene hoards of wealth are protected from interlopers by sky-high walls of privilege. You don’t have a shot in hell. Perfect competition is a total utopian myth.

But there’s another level at which the morality question has to be addressed — the real morality question.

Is it morally acceptable for any individual to “look out for number one” — exclusively — even if others have the same shot as you? All spiritual traditions, and even secular humanism, express the primary rule — their top rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Grabbing first for yourself == even if others can grab as much as you can — is not consistent with any version of the Golden Rule.

A culture of me-me-me, the holy grail of capitalism, is a travesty to all but the thoroughly indoctrinated materialist — except those ideologues who believe that competition turns me-me-me into us-us-us every time. Are you as gullible as an economist? 

Do you really think that greed does good? Is it all we need to do just to muscle the government out if the way and let the predators at your throat — trusting that market competition will turn them all into angels and lead us to nirvana?

It’s funny. Economists call it “utility”, just to keep us off guard. Normally we’d call it “greed”, but we’ve been listening to the wrong people.

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