What is the Point? – Markets and Morality

No, I am not having an existential crisis.  Well, maybe I am but this crisis is not a new or personal.  It is one that has seemed to dominate our culture sense the ’80s.  Or was it the ’60s, maybe it was the 1920s.  If you want to go back it probably started when trade started.  When the first man killed an animal and had it transported to someone he did not know in exchange for something else.

After that when we, as a species, establish trade with villages far enough away that most people in those two villages would never meet.  Production of things became separate from witnessing them being consumed.  When you see your neighbor gather the grains that your cousin bakes it into bread that bread is not some “thing” that you just buy and consume.  That bread is a part of you. Your life is affected by it.

Even today when you take the time to make something yourself you are connected to it.  A fish you caught and cooked yourself is something special verses one bought at a store.  I still have a book rack I built myself in high school shop class.

That pride and care carries over into most of the work we do.  Especially when it is part of building something.  Even if it is a small part of making something, most of us take some pride in making it.  But the further away from the final product we are the less we care about it. In modern day most everything we have we are take no part of in building and only involved at the very end purchasing it from a store.

Maybe that is where the existential crisis starts, or maybe where it ends.

“Stuff” becomes separate from our culture and our connection to the world around us.  That has led us to develop Economics, the study and theories on the gathering, production, and consumption of “stuff.”

The thing is stuff doesn’t care.  It’s just stuff.  It has no feelings, no morality, no goals.  It just is.  We as human beings are the ones that attach meaning to stuff.  We have based so much of our culture and our meaning in it to the gathering, production, and consuming of stuff that we forget that it is about us and not the stuff.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like stuff.  I am sitting on a chair typing on a keyboard that is connected to a computer and will post this on the Internet.  All stuff that has been made my many people who I will never meet all so I could sit and write and share this.

But that last sentence is wrong.  I lied to you and myself, as we all do.  The stuff wasn’t made so I could write this, it was made so every person who had a hand in making it could live better.  The designer of the keyboard was able to send a kid to a better school because he designed it.  The assembler put food on his table and so on.  The keyboard I am typing on was not made for me it was made for those who made it.  I have no connection to who made it and frankly until I started writing this I never ever thought about them.

That is the disconnection of our global economy.  Many economists seem to believe that economy exists to improve the gathering, production, and consumption of stuff.  A freer market is a better market and we should get out of its way so it will grow.

But an economy is not better or worse.  Economics is the measuring and theories about the gathering, production, and consumption of stuff.  It has no sense of right and wrong.  It has no morality or ideology.  Just like the keyboard I type on is neither good nor bad, the economy that created it is neither good nor bad.  It exists as a tool for us people to use. We are the ones that assign value to whether economic growth goes up or down.

This is the point.  Markets have no built in morality. This is the biggest truth that the world needs to learn.

And it is my biggest existential crisis.  Because people on every side of the great struggles of our lifetime, War, poverty, climate change, overpopulation, and so on, hold the current market system as the savior or the villain and everyone is wrong.

You can’t blame the economy for doing what we designed it to do.  We also can’t have faith in a system to be good or moral if we don’t’ put our morality in it.

I can’t let the keyboard I’m typing on write for me.  I must press the keys to make it work.  A basketball game doesn’t exist because a basketball and two hoops exist together.  It is the people who decide to play the game that makes the game happen.  The global economy does not exist without what we, the human race, decide to make it happen.  The basketball game is not good or bad it is the player’s action in the game that act good or bad.  It is the same in an economy.

It is us, the players in the economy, that decide what is important in the economy.  Is growth of the economy the purpose of the economy or is it to serve the people who participate in it?  Should the goal of our global economy be more trade or making sure everyone gets the food they need to survive?  We have that power.  We can make it do what every we want.

Once we stop looking at the gathering, production, and consumption of stuff as the goal of the economy and start looking at it as a tool to meet our morals as a society we will change the world for the betterment of those morals.


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