Can the free market give you moral backbone?

27th December, 2008

The John Templeton Foundation recently sent me a collection of essays addressing the question: “Does the free market corrode moral character?” Lacking an agreed definition of the free market, a conception of good moral character, and above all a sense of how character is shaped, it is not surprising that the answers tended to wander off topic. The writer Kay Hymowitz fears that internet chatrooms facilitate paedophilia. The economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that globalisation makes the world a better place. However right he may be, that was not the question.

It is easy to point to systems that are far more injurious to moral character – not to mention prosperity, peace, the environment and human life itself – than the free market: German fascism, Stalinist communism. It is harder to reverse the exercise, although free markets do look corrosive when compared to some childlike state of grace.

I am not sure if it is the same question or not, but one might also ask: “Does the free market punish moral character?” On balance, the answer is no. Markets tend (but do not guarantee) to reward hard work, calculated risk-taking, applied creativity, amiability and honesty. Competition is the key here: it allows us to find alternatives to doing business with lazy, timorous, unimaginative, rude or dishonest people.

All this assumes that we can see such people coming. Often we can. Most market interactions are repeated, directly or indirectly. I buy something from the same corner shop every day, and it is in neither the shop owner’s nor my own interests to rock the boat. So we smile, chat, perform (very) small favours for each other and do not cheat. My relationship with a Tesco shop attendant is less straightforward, but, although unlikely I will ever see the attendant again, Tesco has an ongoing relationship both with its own employee and with me and does its best to ensure things run smoothly.

When market interactions are not repeated, there is more temptation to cheat. There is a logical reason why holiday guides, estate agents and pension salesmen tend to be regarded with caution.

All this is closer to pub philosophy than science, but some scientific evidence does exist. One suggestive finding comes from a cross-cultural study carried out by three economists and published earlier this year in the journal Science. Simon Gächter, Benedikt Herrmann and Christian Thöni invited subjects in 16 cities across the world to play a “public goods” game, in which players had to choose, repeatedly, between contributing to a pot for the benefit of all or selfishly hoarding their own resources.

Earlier research had found that if players were given the option of punishing the selfish by removing their resources, they did so and near-full co-operation quickly emerged. Gächter and his colleagues found that, in many societies, the opposite occurred: rather than accepting their punishment and co-operating, those who had been punished tended instead to take revenge.

The results were striking: co-operative behaviour seemed to flourish in countries where market democracies were long established.

The Americans, Australians, Britons and Swiss were the least likely to inflict recriminatory punishment. Russians, Greeks and Saudis were most prone to reprisals. Co-operation was best sustained in the US, Denmark and Switzerland, and fell apart in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Greece.

Co-operation and aversion to vengeance are hardly the sole definitions of moral character; and this was merely a laboratory game. Still – despite a long history of reasonably free markets in the US, Australia, the UK, Switzerland and Denmark, important aspects of morality in those countries seem to have held up rather well.

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