Market Society: What I Thought Michael Sandel Might Have Addressed

When focusing a critical eye on the trends of American politics and economic opportunity, criticism often gets muddled in language that can be mistaken as a culture war being fought from the lower ranks against the top.  The language is couched in “tax the rich” rhetoric and the value of individual responsibility and liberty.

But this is several steps away from the core of the issue.  There is nothing in this debate that should be inherently about the top 1% against the rest.  There is nothing inherently wrong with a top 1% in and of itself.  We can’t all be in the top one percent.  We can’t all be in the top 30%.

Instead the issue begins — but doesn’t end — in the distribution between the spread of power and opportunity in our society.  It is curious to me that both on the left and right, the very top seem to be in the cross hairs, but the squabbles are fought mostly in an increasingly poorly defined and misunderstood middle.  And it all occurs behind the stubborn myth of self-made opportunity.

Self-made opportunity certain defines a great deal of success in the United States, but it isn’t the complete story. If it were, success would be more or less equally distributed across the globe.  The hard working entrepreneur in Somalia or Bangladesh would have his string of grocery and hardware stores across the country selling fruit and wrenches to his grateful neighbors.

It doesn’t work that way, and even a modest intellect probably can understand why.

Still, in this country, we have turned the market economy into a fetish.  That’s the real issue.  The market is supposed to solve everything, including such non-market problems like those of rights and equality.  Even tangible public goods like our physical infrastructure, the environment, education, and safety increasingly are left to the whims of the free market.  This has not turned out well.

Again, I think the root of the problem is the free market fetish.  I wrote a few days ago about reading Michael Sandel and my disappointment that he did not dig into the implications of this fetish.  The drift from a society structured around a market economy to one that is structured around a market society is about more than things being viewed as commodities to be bought and sold, it is about how we think about the very structure of society itself.

On left and right, politicians talk the Market Society rhetoric.  Listening to politicians today you would think small business and corporations cast the votes and the citizen rabble should shut up and hope gratefully for the scraps that will follow from market success.  That’s the problem.

Even worse, Democrats, but especially Republicans, vote for this structure.  Going back to the top 1% fixation.  Condemning wealth, even the most successfully wealthy, is almost taboo.  It is an attack on what we’re told are American values of freedom and responsibility.  In tax debates, the top 20% enjoy the same rhetorical protection.  (Perhaps this happens in part because 35% of Americans think they’re in the t0p 10%, but that’s a rather modest example of cognitive dissonance muddying our politics.)

What happens, I think, is we stop evaluating policy choices at a shared, public level and focus exclusively on individual cost and benefit.  When we fetishize wealth and markets, we give up on the individual.  Again, there is no reason why we should demonize wealth and success, but when the value of the market takes priority over the value of individual and the society, sustaining the fetish of markets becomes one benefits the few at the cost of the majority.

In short, the free markets don’t serve all, the become tools of the minority.  Too many people look away and live with this because they have been misled into thinking markets equal freedom and freedom equals markets.  That is the philosophy of oligarchies and aristocracy if only the elite have access to the markets.

We see this concession everywhere.  The idea  that if you cannot afford it you do not deserve it might be fine if you’re considering a luxury car, but health care?  Education?  Safe streets and a clean environment?

For generations economic opportunity, freedom, and growth thrived with strong government and public investment.  The market economy served the successful quite well while sustaining a healthy middle class.  It’s the transition away from this way of thinking about common investment to one where the market takes priority is one that needs more thought, especially as it affects how we structure our policies around market values before civic ones.



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