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From Beneficial Market Economy to Destructive Market Society

The philosopher and Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel is no stranger to addressing the moral and civic questions of our time. In a 2012 article he wrote for The Atlantic titled “What Isn’t for Sale?” he neatly gives an overview of America’s shift in the past four decades from a market economy to a market society. This shift, we contend, is as damaging as it is seismically dramatic. We also suspect a market society mentality has always been a hidden cornerstone of plantation system economics.

What’s the distinction between a market economy and a market society? Sandel writes:

"A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. In contrast, a market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relationships are made over in the image of the market. . . . Do we want a market economy, or a market society?"

We reference and briefly discuss Sandel’s article here because it provides a good contextual overview by which to further understand what we’re calling plantation system economics.

Beginning in the early 1980s, America’s President Ronald Reagan and Great Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began to strongly proclaim the conviction that free markets and government deregulation were the pathways to prosperity and freedom. As the Cold War ended in the early 1990s and President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair continued the work of their respective predecessors, free market thinking and economics grew to dominate politics and policy. While countries around the globe began embracing market mechanisms in the thinking of their politics and operations of their economies, a blind faith developed that espoused markets as the primary means for achieving the public good. This is especially true in capitalist and emerging capitalist countries. Like the hostages of a Trojan horse incursion or malware attack, however, the blindly faithful were ignorant to the reality that market values had been invited to creep in, permeate, and implicate every corner of social life.

Photo Credit: Geran de Klerk on

Sandel explains how market values implicate social life by creating a marketplace society that allocates a dollar value to humankind’s relationship with each other and Creation. The result is a price-permitted upending of our relationships with each other and Creation. Just a sampling of the new relationships now justified through market values thinking, and the price in 2012 of those relations, includes: hunters buying the right to hunt and kill an endangered black rhino in South Africa for $250,000; corporations in the European Union buying the right to pollute carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for $10.50/metric ton; buying the right to immigrate to the United States, with the potential for permanent residency, for $500,000; and renting a surrogate mother’s womb in India for $8,000, less than one-third the price in the United States.

Today, as Sandel observes and these examples attest, that blind faith in the markets as the primary means for achieving the public good is now in question. The Great Recession did more than expose weaknesses in the abilities of markets to efficiently allocate risks, much less achieve the public good. “It also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals, and that we need to somehow reconnect the two.” Sandel agrees that greed played a part in the 2008 financial crisis and its lingering aftermath, but that is hardly the complete answer. “The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms.”

Consider the now ubiquitous examples of for-profit higher education, for-profit hospitals and related healthcare providers, and for-profit prisons. Likewise, the use of private military contractors to fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the blurring of boundaries between advertising and journalism, corporate naming rights of parks and civic spaces, and campaign finance in the United States that all but permits the outright buying and selling of elections.

The use of markets to allocate and deliver—if not grip and control—social goods and services was almost unknown before the Reagan era. Most probably, as U.S.-trained law school students learn by the end of first year contracts and torts classes (at least that was my experience), because in America’s early history the free market and privatization efforts for public services failed spectacularly. Services like road paving, fire hydrant supply lines, and public safety failed so frequently that local and state governments were forced to take over responsibility for these errantly privatized services—simply to ensure reliable delivery to all citizens. While those lessons appear to have been remembered, honored, and properly applied by previous generations, those lessons have been all but lost on us today. To the modern person the notion of daily life being guided by market values is largely taken for granted, which is unfortunate because that perspective sets the stage for the repeating of painful lessons.

In the blog after next we’ll introduce the two primary reasons we should all be concerned that market values have permeated social life to create a market society.

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