Nowadays, many people are losing their faith and have started questioning the fair operation of capitalism. One of the compelling reasons for such distrust is too much greed and misuse of self-interest that was supposed to be the building block of capitalism and a genuine drive to business activity.
However, the damaging events like 2008 great recession showed that not only excessive greed but also something more cynical was in the making that led to the near breakdown of capitalism. “It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into sphere of life where they don’t belong” according to Michael J. Sandel, the author of a recently published book, What Money Can’t Buy. The infiltration of monetary forces into every aspect of our lives has created a mentality that is overtaking society ridden with the relentless material pursuits. The economic crooks who defrauded millions of us in the recent past and screwed up this economy, are coming back again with a vengeance, fobbing us off with new deceptive, more elaborate tactics especially by using online resources and preying on vulnerability of the unsuspecting consumers. Ill-advisedly, our economic/political system has legalized and legitimized any questionable businesses that are selling almost everything for which they can fabricate a market for.
Such an astonishing development is alarming and we should be apprehensive about the direction in which capitalism is headed. We may have come to a very important crossroad where we have to confront and tackle many critical issues. Isn’t it time to question the appropriateness of the market transactions involving things that should not be commoditized and their merit should be judged only by moral and ethical standards. Should the society place limits on what money can buy. Which way we should go next and what kind of coping mechanisms are there to protect us from the possible fallout?
Candidly, the proliferation of strange tactics to make money in this country has made some people wonder if the free-enterprise system is devolving and being dragged into denigrating territory due to our obliviousness to the reckless deeds of greedy people who are taking us for a dangerous ride again. Everything is up for sale in real or virtual markets. Is that what capitalism is supposed to be all about? Is money the only way to get ahead of others and the primary means of solving our problems?
Portentously, economists have low or no sympathy for non-market considerations such as altruistic deeds or ethical and moral values. The primary reason is that they want to make economics a positive, non-judgmental science. They tell us that economics should not make judgments about the preferences of consumers, what they wish to buy or not buy, or the merits of what they buy and sell in a market. In other words, strict economics does not attach any non-economic worth to the goods and services traded in the market. Likewise, a dollar spent on education has the same value as a dollar spent on harmful products like cigarettes or gambling. Economics just reports what happens and how people may change or modify their behavior in response to monetary incentives, no judgment made about the merit of their decisions. It is time, many believe, to revise this approach.
The central theme of this article is that it is morally and ethically unacceptable to let monetary forces alone dictate what kind of goods and services should be produced/sold, who gets what, and how income and wealth are distributed? There are fundamental problems with the penetration into every dominion of our life:
First, even though market system has the appearance of free choice, it actually undermines free choice in some cases in the sense that it coerces people into doing things for money that they otherwise would not do, such as selling a kidney or blood just to pay their bills.
Second, it is discriminatory in the sense that it allows the well-off people to fashion their way up and get ahead of the rest of us using their financial means. This is unfair to those who do not have the money to influence the outcome of the market or having access to something that is supposed to be available to them often at no cost. Some examples of this are being denied access to public goods/services because politicians are being paid by campaign donors and lobbyists to change rules and regulations to favor them rather than society as a whole, or the rich buying admission for their unqualified children to a top-rated state school thus denying admission to qualified students who cannot pay. Unfettered market serves the rich in most cases thus exacerbate the inequality and polarization of the society that is already a disconcerting problem here in the Unites States. The rich can use their financial resources to buy rights as well as privileges. They can afford to live an opulent life separated from the rest of us.
Third, it promotes corruption and makes the market vulnerable to bribery and cronyism by allowing greedy charlatans take advantage of the gullibility of some people. Paying money to entice someone to do something they wouldn’t normally do, like using themselves as advertising billboard for the business companies by tattooing their logos or their web address on their body, is tantamount to bribing them.
Fourth, it promotes rent-seeking mentality by allowing some people to stuff their coffer without contributing to the society productively and sends wrong signals to the people who think they can get rich by exploiting the system. Rent seeking creates distortionary consequences for the economy in many ways–higher prices for example, because it is often carried out through pricey lawsuits against business firms and the costs are passed on to consumers. This is especially true for mighty corporations like pharmaceutical companies. Frivolous lawsuits are often unnecessarily brought on by companies against their rivals, especially companies in high-tech areas. They spend exorbitant amounts of money and resources suing one another for patent infringements. In a recent highly publicized lawsuit, the jury awarded Apple $1 billion in damages to be paid by Samsung for allegedly copying some aspects of Apple’s popular iPhone and iPad. Given that America is the world’s largest market for consumer electronics, such costly court cases will have a widespread impact on the American consumer. Obviously, lawsuits like this are instigated by lawyers who will gain handsomely regardless of the outcomes. They may also encourage companies to file even more lawsuits in anticipation of monetary gain as well as monopoly of power. Propagation of such cases can divert companies’ attention away from focusing on their products and redirect it toward gaining easy money at the expense of their rivals.
Large companies have hired skilled lobbyist/lawyers to influence the course of politics and the laws and regulations enacted by the U.S. Congress, thus augmenting their rent-seeking ability. For instance, according to Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, “There are more than 3100 lobbyists working for the healthcare industry (nearly 6 for every congressperson), and 2100 lobbyists working for the energy and natural-resources industries.”
Fifth, it propagates complacency; I believe with the passage of time, our attitudes toward market will change. We become more receptive and tolerant of something whose legitimacy was unthinkable in the past. Surrogate motherhood and betting on the life of an innocent person even without his knowledge, for example, used to be considered something unacceptable or even shameful. Nowadays, these and many similar activities are legal and legitimate. It makes me wonder what is next, perhaps buying your prison sentence for a price or selling our votes for money.
Please click this link to see a list of such questionable activities that have commercialized and transformed into big businesses.
Allowing monetary influences to continue unchecked sets a dangerous direction and opens a can of worms, so to speak. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to prevent money from more widely and deeply invading our lives. It also undermines the other incentives, moral and ethical values for which we do things like charitable works, altruistic deeds, and etc. Do we want to give up all the admired standards that have served us so well for so long?
The commoditization of everything in life is not something that we should condone. It is demeaning and alters the intention and the nature of many things that should not be objects of material gain, such as the right to vote, human organs, civic responsibilities, human life, children, romance, moral obligations, to name a few. These should not be viewed as ordinary pieces of regular assets that can be traded in a market. These are not properties; they are revered duties or inalienable rights of citizens.
Should we reconsider the roles and the realms of capitalism, especially after the financial turmoil of 2008 and the havoc that befell us due to the malicious deeds of profiteering entrepreneurs? Should we still trust the market system to function fairly and equitably if left to its own device? Should we let our concern for freedom and individualism undermine the need for egalitarianism and respect for morality and ethical norms? And more importantly, why didn’t the crisis of 2008 impassion us to reevaluate the boundaries of the market so as to prevent it from taking us down the same destructive path again? Why don’t our government and politicians implement the critical barriers needed so that the evils we kicked out of the door cannot come back through the window? These are serious questions that need serious answers because we, as individuals and as a nation, cannot afford to sit idly by while we are “sold down the river” by greed-driven, self-serving opportunists.
Subscribe to The Iranian newsletter
Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the top news stories delivered to your inbox.