Back in the days when I was a callow undergraduate, many of my close friends were devout Christians, as indeed were many people on campus. There were days when I could go from sunrise to its set without ever encountering a pair of wrists naked of the near-ubiquitous What Would Jesus Do? bracelet.
WWJD? was supposed to remind His followers that they should strive to imitate Christ in all their words and actions. Although I never sported the WWJD? jewellery, I was always impressed by its effectiveness and simplicity. There was no uniform consensus about what, specifically, Jesus might do, but at least you could be sure that none of these WWJD? subscribers believed stealing your stuff, plagiarising your work, or snaffling your boyfriend was Something Jesus Would Do. That made campus culture rather pleasant. And of course the WWJD? bracelet was a perfect tool for social accountability, as none of its wearers ever wanted to do things that would cause non-believers to point sardonically at the bracelet with cocked, disbelieving eyebrow.
This came to mind today while I was reading Gordon Brown’s piece on CiF, entitled ‘Markets need morals.’ Why? Because it seemed to me as if he had publicly donned a What Would Adam Smith Do? bracelet. Observe:
I have long been fascinated by Adam Smith, who came from my home town of Kirkcaldy, precisely because he recognised that the invisible hand of the market had to be accompanied by the helping hand of society. He argued that the flourishing of moral sentiments comes before – and is the foundation of – the wealth of nations. In other words, markets need morals.
Somewhere along the line, Gordon Brown realised that Adam Smith holds the same position in the minds of sensible economists as Jesus holds in the minds of campus Christians. When in doubt, the sensible economist turns to his bible to discover What Would Adam Smith Do? And if the answer may not be found therein, the economist will use his knowledge and understanding of Adam Smith to speculate on what Adam Smith might have done. Like Jesus, Adam Smith operated according to a set of general principles from which we may derive his likely conclusions about modern questions of economics.
So Gordon Brown has looked at the condition of Britain today and consulted his WWASD? jewellery. And he has determined that the foundation of wealth is the moral character of the wealth-creating society.
But is he right? Or has he confused Hume’s is and ought?
I am not an expert on the WWASD? question, but I think Smith was simply stating an is. The operation of the market and economy is simply a reflection of the moral values of the society. If a society views freedom, free will, and mutual self-interest as moral goods, its economic exchanges will tend to be free, voluntary, and mutually beneficial, because the moral code to which the people adhere will inform how and why they make economic exchanges. If a society views security, equality, and the common good as moral imperatives, its economic exchanges will reflect those principles instead. The state, which like it or not has the power to regulate economic exchange, also reflects the moral values of its people, and will regulate economic exchange so that it conforms to the prevailing moral character.
Gordon Brown has misread this idea as an ought: economic exchanges ought to conform to morality. Our moral code demands good outcomes for all, so our market must be designed to produce good outcomes for all. But Gordon Brown has gotten his cart and horse mixed up. The fact of the matter is, the condition of our ‘market’ does currently reflect our moral character.
What does our society consider moral goods these days? Allow me to make a list.
- free will
- the common good
- hard work
- work-life balance
- purchasing power
- a minimum standard of wealth for all
- a maximum standard of wealth for all
If this seems a rather schizophrenic and internally contradictory list to you, as it does to me, then it should come as no surprise that, as Adam Smith’s is predicts, our economic conditions are equally schizophrenic and internally contradictory. Particularly difficult to reconcile are the ideas that we want to generate enough wealth for all to have a decent standard of living, but we encourage people to purchase less, consume less, work less, invest less, and spend less. On the one hand, material wealth is vital because we consider those with little of it poor, and poverty is a moral evil. On the other hand, material wealth is wicked because we consider those who pursue it greedy and destructive, and greed and destruction are moral evils.
‘Give the poor purchasing power!’ we cry. ‘They are deprived of their material needs!’
‘We are purchasing too much and becoming soullessly materialistic!’ we cry. ‘We do not need stuff!’
And so we end up with a moral culture that sets a minimum level of wealth below which there is poverty (a moral evil) and a maximum level of wealth above which there is greed and consumerism (moral evils). Then we demand of the ‘market’ that it confine itself to the space in between.
Economic exchange proceeds accordingly. Some economic actors direct all of their considerable effort toward generating enough wealth to avoid the lower limit. Unfortunately, this drives certain sectors above the upper limit, so we require other economic actors to direct their resources toward driving wealth-generation down again. Back and forth, back and forth, boom and bust, extreme wealth and extreme poverty, like a giant economic pushme-pullyou.
And Gordon Brown says ‘markets need morals.’
Gordon, the market has morals. It has our morals, and it reflects them accordingly. And your ‘enabling state’ reflects them too: it encourages business, it restricts business; it removes wealth, it grants wealth; it helps individuals at the expense of the community, it helps the community at the expense of individuals; it seeks wealth, it condemns wealth generation.
And you complain that the results are imperfect? The results are a perfect reflection of our moral values.
So to return to the question – What Would Adam Smith Do? – I doubt he would argue that we should change effects to fit causes. If he could see the flawed reflections of our moral code, he would advise us to search out the flaws in our moral code.
WWASD? He would say to us, ‘Stop putting garbage in, and you’ll stop getting garbage out.’