Are Markets Repugnant?


How about this remarkable quotation:

"The problem is not that economists are unreasonable people, it's that they're evil people," [Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom] said. "They work in a different moral universe. The burden of proof is on someone who wants to include" a transaction in the marketplace.

According to the New York Times, Bloom made this assertion during a recent fascinating conference, "Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets," at the American Enterprise Institute (which I unfortunately missed, damn it!).

The idea is that some things or services are just so offensive to the moral sense (repugnant) that no one should ever be able to buy them in the marketplace. Of course, we now find some market transactions repugnant that earlier generations would not have. Slavery and bear-baiting come to mind. On the other hand, biomedicine is an area especially rife with activities that past generations found repugnant, including smallpox vaccines, anesthesia for child-birth, selling condoms, organ transplants, and artifical reproductive techniques.

It is true that markets are great at facilitating all kinds of transactions, including those that some people find immoral, e.g., sexual services, recreational drugs, and burning fossil fuels. But markets are not just arenas of "anything goes" amorality. For example, a study of 15 small scale societies by University of Massachusetts economist Herbert Gintis and his colleagues found that the more integrated those societies were into outside markets, the more generous and cooperative their members are. In my column, "Do Markets Make People More Generous?," I reported Gintis' findings:

"I would say societies that use markets extensively develop a culture of cooperation, fairness, and respect for the individual," says Herbert Gintis….

Gintis speculates that markets bring strangers into contact on a regular basis, encouraging people to develop more concern for others beyond their family and immediate neighbors. Instead of parochialism, being integrated into markets encourages a spirit of ecumenism. "Extensive market interactions may accustom individuals to the idea that interactions with strangers may be mutually beneficial," the researchers theorize. "By contrast, those who do not customarily deal with strangers in mutually advantageous ways may be more likely to treat anonymous interactions as hostile, threatening, or occasions for opportunistic pursuit of self-interest."…

Based on his research, Gintis believes that history traces humanity's rise from tribal selfishness to more cosmopolitan liberality. "Market societies give rise to more egalitarianism and movements toward democracy, civil liberties, and civil rights," Gintis points out. "Market societies and democratic societies are practically co-extensive."

Repugnance is not the end of an ethical analysis, it's the beginning. As theologian and AEI fellow Michael Novak told the AEI conferees, "Repugnance is not enough." Markets are superb at enabling people with differing moral visions to live together peacably. Consequently, the burden of proof should be on those who want to ban an activity from the marketplace rather than on those who favor it. By advocating markets economists are not only reasonable, they are also moral.

Whole Times article here.

Clarification Addendum from Prof. Bloom: Just as I suspected, Bloom was not arguing that he thinks that economists are evil. He sent me the following clarification:

"Just to clarify, my remark about evil economists was a joke. This was obvious at the conference itself, though unfortunately not from the NYTimes article. After I said it, people laughed, and then I said, "To put it more fairly …". and went on to argue that economists tend to reason consequentially, and are less sensitive than lay people to considerations such as taboo, disgust, status quo bias, and so on. And I tend to agree with them on this. In particular, as I argued in the discussion period, disgust is very unreliable as a guide to moral behavior."

Those sending him "strange" emails, please lay off.

Declaration of competing interests: As an undergraduate I was a double major in economics and philosophy.