Morality and the Free Market

It is fashionable among free-market capitalists today to use personal choice and responsibility as the only yardsticks by which they measure the soundness of a policy. For example, if you sign up with a bank and get gauged by the fees, it is your responsibility: you signed up of your own free will and you signed a contract that—somewhere—spelled out the terms. If you didn’t read it or didn’t understand it fully, that is your problem. You can always choose to bank somewhere else… or even to not use a bank at all.

This kind of reasoning appears again and again from today’s free-market advocates. The only thing that matters is freedom and choice, and if you choose to engage in a transaction then you are wholly responsible for the consequences of that choice. Caveat emptor. (“Let the buyer beware.”)

I personally find this “Choice Uber Alles” approach to capitalism to be distinctly amoral.

Recently I have been reading A Treatise on the Origin, Nature, Law and Alterations of Money by Oresma, written in 1355. The great bulk of the work is dedicated to arguing the moral implications of the mis-use of money and the monetary system. He argued that even if the Prince can manipulate currency to make profit, it is evil to do so; and even though the public could democratically vote to manipulate currency, it is unjust and immoral and ultimately harmful to society for them to do so; and even though a minter could increase the charge levied for creating the coins in order to profit, it is evil and ultimately destructive to society to do so.

For centuries — dating back to Socrates and Plato — philosophers, monks, and politicians alike have talked about the evils of usury in exactly these terms: it is evil because it is unjust, dishonest, and harmful to society.

And I can’t help but wonder: Where is that kind of thinking in today’s capitalism? Where is the thought toward what is just or unjust? Where is the measure of whether a policy is harmful or not harmful to the community as a whole?

But no… today’s free-market philosophy has become so rarefied that the only basis on which we are allowed to judge is, “Is it in the contract? Did people agree according to their free will?” And if they did, then it must be ok.

I can’t help but wonder what the ideological justification for that argument is. The notion of caveat emptor is wonderful advice to give to people participating in a free market. But that doesn’t mean it is a sound basis for policy.