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Nature Abhors a Moral Vacuum

In our post of two weeks ago, From Beneficial Market Economy to Destructive Market Society, we observed that market values have permeated if not replaced generations of societal values. We encourage you to read that post to refresh your memory before you continue on to the two reasons we should all be keenly concerned about market values that strengthen and support plantation economics: inequality and corrosion.

Market values that support plantation economics create inequality. Life is harder for those with modest income and means. Inequity is always apparent when viewed from the perspective of the economically disadvantaged, but less painful when considering life’s luxuries. A person of modest means might like to experience daily champagne and a Bentley but can be content without those luxuries. On the other hand, as money increasingly buys or is required to buy life’s necessities, like unpolluted water and air, or freedom, the starker and more painful the consequences of inequity become. In a market society even the basic needs and joys of life risk being reduced to simply how much of each a person can afford to purchase.

Market values that support plantation economics create corrosion. People haven’t been trained to think of markets as having a corrosive aspect, but corrosion is at least as much a threat to society as inequity if not more so. Inequity is easier to identify, quantify, and measure than corrosion, and multitudes of people are daily at that task. Corrosion, in our view, is more damaging because it is more subtle and more directly shapes our values and morals, which in turn direct our actions that create our inequities. Placing a price on something doesn’t just allocate goods or experiences, it expresses and promotes attitudes about those goods or experiences. When driven by a price those attitudes can easily become corroded.

Photo Credit Jenni Jones on

Consider the example of paying underachieving students to read books, as is done in some school systems and possibly in many homes. While the monetary incentive might get the students started, it can just as easily soon create in the students the attitude that reading is work for which to demand payment. The foreseeable results include some students stopping reading when the payments stop, and some students demanding more money for reading more or more difficult books. These students risk not learning to appreciate reading for its inherent benefits. In this way the societal value of reading becomes corroded.

What might be the corrosive effect on patriotism if we were permitted to sell our citizenship to a foreigner who wants to skip the immigration process? What might be the corrosive effect on the family if we were permitted to sell our children to a desiring couple who wants to skip the adoption process? To build on the original question from the previous blog, “Do we want a market economy, or a corroded market society?”

One reason we’ve collectively arrived at a market society is that after decades of insisting people leave their ethics or values at the door when they enter the workplace, we’ve created a moral vacuum in the marketplace. Nature indeed abhors a vacuum, especially a moral vacuum, which has since been filling with everything-has-a-price market values.

“Questions are the engines of thought,” is a favorite phrase of ours. Do you increasingly see financial and wealth inequality in our society? Do you increasingly see the corrosion of civility and interpersonal relations in our society? Do you increasingly see the damage we collectively have done to our environment? Can you begin to see that by allowing our societal values to be corroded and replaced with marketplace values that we’ve created the very structure that results in this kind of damage to ourselves, our societies, and our environments?

Philosopher and Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel, in his article “What Isn’t for Sale?” observes, “[E]conomists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.” Sandel immediately follows that observation with an example. He writes:

“When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use (emphasis added). But not all goods are properly valued in this way. The most obvious example is human beings. Slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as a commodity, to be bought and sold at auction. Such treatment fails to value human beings as persons, worthy of dignity and respect; it sees them as instruments of gain and objects of use (emphasis added).”

You may remember my story of Mr. X explaining to me and the other law firm associates that we were being given raises but were required to work longer hours to both earn those raises and generate the increased profits the partners wanted. None of us associates could legally claim to be a slave because we were each free to quit and try to find a law firm that doesn’t operate under the same business model. (Good luck with that.) Each of us could, however, reasonably agree we were being manipulated as instruments of profit and use. We weren’t offered a choice; the increased work expectations were imposed on us. In fact, when some pushed back, we were plainly and directly told that we’re working in a plantation system.

The associates’ dignity as people had been corroded by a marketplace value in the legal field that we call profits per partner (PPP). As Mr. X demonstrated in his firm and as is true in many law firms, particularly larger law firms, the marketplace value of PPP is more influential and powerful than the societal value of the associates’ dignity as people.

My Mr. X gifted me with a clear example and lived experience of the corrosive effects of market values. You have your own Mr. or Ms. X stories that gift you with similarly corrosive examples and lived experiences. Are you ready to help stop that corrosion? We’ve all witnessed the corrosive effects worsen over time without understanding what was happening. Now we know. Are you ready to help reverse that corrosion? Capitalism is in need of a new ethic to fill the moral vacuum, which can stop and reverse the corrosion, what we call a partnership ethic in support of Partnership Economics. Are you ready to help install that new ethic?

We invite, encourage, and appreciate your help installing a partnership ethic as the antidote to inequity and corrosion.

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