Morals of the Marketplace

By George P. Brockway, originally published September 7, 1987

1987-9-7 Morals of the Marketplace Title

1987-9-7 Morals of the Marketplace Trader

ETHICS IS suddenly a big topic. This is the doing of Ivan Boesky, Bess Meyerson, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and an obscure Marine lieutenant colonel, whose name I don’t recall. Those cynics who consider Lucifer/Satan the hero of Paradise Lost will not be surprised, nor will those realists who observe that the remembered hero of Watergate is not John G. Sirica but G. Gordon Liddy.

In all the current talk, business ethics has come in for special attention, and many an editorial has proposed required ethics courses in business schools. Lester C. Thurow, the new dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, resists the idea on the ground that the blight, if any, goes much too deep to be reached by a tacked-on series of lectures or bull sessions. Morals, he says, should have been learned at home and in the community long before graduate school. I resist the special course idea, too, but on the ground that if students have been learning bad ethics or no ethics, it is because they have been taught bad economics.

Economics used to be called an ethical science, an expression that resonates oddly in our ears. Come to think of it, our term, “social science,” gives off similar vibrations. Social relations surely have an ethical aspect (if it exists at all), while the propositions of the natural sciences (what we think of as proper science) do not. There is nothing moral or immoral about the solar system, or about the way electrons bond, or even about AIDS. Morals may be – most often certainly are – involved in the transmission of AIDS, but the physiology of the disease is neither right nor wrong. Indeed, it is only because the disease is a natural phenomenon that there is any hope of containing or curing it. Even the calls for sexual abstinence must depend on the fact that the disease obeys natural laws and is neither a random accident nor a supernatural visitation.

“Nature to be controlled,” as Francis Bacon said, “must be obeyed.” Thus disease control (which is a human end) uses medicines (which are natural means). Thus engineers use the principles of physics to achieve their ends. The ends are not natural, but the means are. It is frequently argued that economics presents a parallel situation. In 1874, Leon Walras, in his Elements of Pure Economics, distinguished at considerable length between economics as an ethical science, which considered what ought to be done; economics as an art, which taught how to do it; and economics as pure science, which described how it worked. Toward the close of the century, a similar tripartite analysis was made by John Neville Keynes (John Maynard’s father). In our day, Milton Friedman, perhaps indulging a puckish humor, has quoted favorably from the senior Keynes’ work.

The parallel between physiology or physics on the one hand and pure economics on the other is, however, false. There is no such thing as pure economics. Physiology and physics can be studied – must be studied – without regard to the willful act of any individual or group of individuals. But no antiseptic event of that kind occurs in economics. Walras, whose work was hailed by Joseph Schumpeter as “the only work of an economist that will stand comparison with the achievements of theoretical physics,” opened his analysis, after a long introduction, with the observation, “Value in exchange, when left to itself, arises spontaneously in the market as the result of competition.” But this pure proposition is immediately corrupted by willful humanity: “As buyers, traders make their demands by outbidding each other. As sellers, traders make their offers by underbidding each other.” (Walras’ emphases.)

Without those traders making their demands and offers, there is no economics, pure or applied. With those traders, economics becomes inextricably immersed in questions of morals. I do not mean merely that trade is impossible unless traders abjure fraud (at least up to a point), although certainly this is true. What I mean is that demands and offers – the fundamental elements of “pure” economics – are not acts of God or events of nature but acts of human beings who necessarily define themselves by what they do, including what they do in the marketplace. Perhaps more to the point: Demands and offers can be understood only as acts of will.

There has been no lack of attempts to develop other explanations, and they form the division of economics known as “value theory.” Prices are determined by the reconciliation of demands and offers, and demands and offers are said to be determined by values. There are three leading explanations of value. The first, found prominently in Adam Smith and Karl Marx, holds that things become valuable commodities in accordance with the amount of labor that goes into their production. The second, advanced by Jeremy Bentham, argues that only useful things are valuable, and that utility derives from the promotion of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. The third, credited by Leon Walras to his father Auguste, founds value on rareté, a combination of scarcity and utility.

All these explanations turn out to have exceptions. The labor theory cannot explain why a house in the Houston suburbs that sold for a quarter of a million dollars only yesterday can be bought for half that price today and will sell for a different price tomorrow. The utility theory cannot explain why proprietary drugs are more expensive than their generic equivalents. The simple scarcity theory cannot explain why gem-quality diamonds are more expensive than bluebird nests. Put them all together in the rareté theory, and you still can’t explain why baseball stars are paid in the millions of dollars and croquet experts have to pay to enter tournaments.

Of course, the problem of the exceptions has not gone unnoticed. The typical solution turns on a relaxed definition of utility. Proprietary drugs, for example, may be said to be more useful to some people because they carry an implicit guarantee of quality and so enhance satisfaction and pleasure or suppress apprehension and pain. The greater perceived utility naturally results in a higher price.

But see what has happened. The utility theory, like all the theories, was introduced to provide an objective foundation to value. Bentham intended his “felicific calculus” to be the equivalent of Newton’s laws of motion. In reality, though, it is highly subjective. Some people are pleased by drugs’ brand names and some are pained by the higher prices. Bentham himself summed up the situation in an aphorism: “Quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry.” One man’s pleasure is another man’s pain. Utility is what each individual says it is; it has none of the universality of gravity.

IRONICALL Y, the consequence was noted by William Stanley Jevons, a leader in developing Bentham’s utilitarianism into the modern quasi mathematical theory of marginal utility. Calling for increased efforts to collect economic statistics, he wrote, “The price of a commodity is the only test we have of the utility of the commodity to the purchaser …. ” And, he might have added, of its utility to the seller, too. Price may be explained by utility, but all we know of utility is price.

The other value theories are no less circular. Marx, recognizing that a lot of labor can go into producing positively harmful commodities, avers that “socially useful” labor makes value. So it is not labor that is the test of value; it is value that is the test of labor. The tree is known by his fruit. Walras’ rareté also leans on the weak reed of utility, as well as on scarcity.

The only way to keep a circular argument from chasing its tail is not to let the chase get started. Let us, therefore, return to the men and women who did the price-paying of Jevons, the offering and demanding of Walras, and the laboring and social evaluating of Marx. Who are these essential people? As Pogo might say, we have met them, and they are us.

The various value theories we have mentioned each try to make us into passive agents controlled by the economic counterpart of nature. Even perfect competition (the state imagined to provide perfect liberty) requires everyone to be what is called a “price taker.” Prices are then said to be made by the market.

Those who quarrel with the idea of perfect competition tend to do so on the ground that competition never is and never has been perfect. That is true enough, but the reason for this is that the notion of an impersonal market that sets prices is a pathetic fallacy.

Farmers are the standard textbook examples of price takers, unable to influence the price of what they sell, whether they produce more or less, and whether they sell now, or later, or never. Yet if all producers and all consumers – that is, all human beings – are price takers, where do prices come from? Only cynics claim that the individual voter is insignificant because he or she is merely one among tens of millions. The republic will not collapse if I fail to vote; it will collapse if no one votes. It is the same with economic agents. Someone has to set a price, or there is no price system and no economics. An economy of passive agents is a contradiction in terms.

Economics is one of the modes of ethics. Pure economics – economics without people and hence without ethics – is a myth. Morality can’t somehow be tacked onto economic affairs, which otherwise are amoral. Ethics is there at the beginning, or it is not there at all. It is always there because there is no economics that does not concern human acts, and all human acts are acts of will. What is true of economics, the theory of business enterprise, is obviously true of business itself. Business ethics is not merely the proposition that honesty is the best policy. The ethical question, in business and everywhere, is, What sort of person am I? There is no escaping it. That question is posed by everything I do.

The New Leader

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