Does the free market corrode moral character

Does the free market corrode moral character? This question was the title of panel discussion taking place in the palatial Pall Mall headquarters of the Institute of Directors on Wednesday evening to which I for some reason had been invited. After weighing up a prior invitation to the Vatican, where the question of whether the Pope is Catholic was to be hotly debated, I plumped to stay in London.

Answering the question were the libertarian (broadly speaking) Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, darling of the champagne-drinking left, and John Gray, for whom I don’t think the word "darling" could be stretched to include, but who was nonetheless once the object of Thatcher’s political affections, and, more recently, of those of fellow curmudgeon Will Self, apparently.

In the event, no one really said yes, and no one really said no. Gray argued that free market ideology is morally corrupt, in much the same way that he would argue that all ideology is morally corrupt, and that the recent collapse of an assumed connection between liberty and the high-debt, high-risk, roulette economy of the US and UK was certainly a good thing. The market principle itself, however, as a simple, pragmatic extension of the commercial sphere, was in no way to blame, and in any case certainly preferable to any of the political utopia-driven routes - roads which, while quite possibly paved with good intentions, Gray argues cannot be trod without trampling on the mortal remains of millions of innocent people.

Lévy, a beautiful and beautifully-spoken man who continually apologises for his English (usually a clear indicator of conscious strategy), argued that the free market hadn’t corrupted man so much as the reverse. Markets should be regulated, in other words, not because the free market principle is in any way morally defunct (it is certainly preferable to any of the other socio-economic models humanity has witnessed) but because the ability of the super-greedy super-rich to subvert the principle to their own ends had to be curbed by the powers that be, or at least by the powers that should be

As for Professor Bhagwati, above and beyond a curious insistence on referring to the burghers of the Dutch Golden Age, Bhagwati didn’t really think that morality had much to do with it, or with anything else for that matter. The current problem is “basically restricted to the financial sector” – yes, he said this, three times. Things will be upset for a while but then they’ll go back to normal.

Although he assiduously avoided the issue (reasonable, given that he doesn’t see it as an issue), it was in fact Bhagwati who spoke what seemed most to resemble the truth of the matter. The crisis, while it affects the well-being of all of us, is being experienced by those in power (arguably the banks themselves rather than the politicians) as a financial and not as moral matter; and they intend to fix it as such. I’ve certainly seen no evidence to the contrary, at any rate.

Gray, on the other hand, thinks a new dawn is at hand in which, as one more utopia crashes to the floor, we can dance on its ruins, rejoicing as we usher in the blandest breed of political pragmatism yet. And besides, Gray doesn’t really believe in morality anyway.

As for Lévy, the fine analysis I’m sure he could have offered was passed over for a play of sophism. To say that it is we who corrupt the free market, while admitting that in virtue of this the free market has become the principle vehicle through which we become morally corrupted, is simply to blame a bad chicken for laying a bad egg.

My own thoughts are as follows. Markets are great. People need to buy things and they need to sell things. Commercial motivation has been the major force through which mankind has opened up the world and forced the exchange of ideas, of sensibilities, of moralities, to the mutual benefit of each. Trade is the principal agent of historical change, and the main reason humanity dragged itself out of the swamp and into the gleaming palaces that have adorned the rise and fall of civilisations. We were probably happier in the swamp, all told, but we are probably better now.

Shareholder capitalism, which is a logical byproduct of the free market principle, is not great. People pretend it is predicated on the idea that natural greed can be put to good use, to the greater benefit of mankind, but it is in fact predicated on the effective isolation of executive power from anything resembling moral judgement, and its subjugation to the blind desires of grouped individuals who have cashed in the concept of consequence for something with better growth potential.

In this sense, as a system, it is not simply morally corrupt; it is the principal agent through which distinctions between good and bad have become voided of meaning. The consequent progressive, rampant commodification of the entire sphere of human desire, subjecting to a principle of exchange everything from birth, sex and death, has left us with a subjectivity no longer able to comprehend any alternative to the market. The very concept of the individual - which though it may be a convenient fiction is nonetheless that without which the notions of morality and human value are completely empty - has had its assets summarily stripped, broken up and repackaged by management consultants dressed in white coats.

In the free market, mankind has quite simply short-sold its soul.

So I guess the Pope is Catholic after all.

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