Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Valuing Values

Gordon Brown has been giving his "values" speech again, this time at St Paul's cathedral. Last week he delivered it at the European parliament, last month at the US Congress. Each time he introduces a slight modification. He told the Americans that the United States was the true home of the values - "shared values", "enduring values" - which he imagines define his premiership. He told the Brussels gravy-trainers that Europe subsisted in "the common values of people, now represented in this Parliament". Grammatically that's rather ambiguous. Does he mean that the people (who share values) are represented in the parliament (technically true, though it seldom feels like that)? Or does he mean to imply that it's the values that are represented by the parliament? Surely not.

Whatever. There were fourteen mentions of "values" in the Europe speech, eighteen today. An inflation in values, or at least in words about values, almost worthy of Jacqui Smith's expenses claim. They are "enduring values", "shared global values" and even "the values we celebrate in our everyday lives" which, somehow, "we must reshape our global economic system" to respect. In a passage copied almost word for word from his Europe speech - he must think it especially meaningful - he asserted that "most people want a market that is free, but never values-free, a society that is fair but not laissez faire", and that "across the world our task is to agree global economic rules that reflect our enduring values."

He thinks that "values" are not only separate from the market, but virtually incompatible with it. The "free market" is, in Brown's view, comprised of recklessness, selfishness and greed, and is thus only acceptable when firmly controlled by, one assumes, politicians:


But as we are discovering to our considerable cost, the problem is that without transparent rules to guide them, free markets can reduce all relationships to transactions, all motivations to self interest, all sense of value to consumer choices, all sense of worth to a price tag So unbridled and untrammeled, they can become the enemy of the good society.


Furthermore:

The truth is that the virtues we admire most and make society flourish - hard work, taking responsibility, being honest, being fair - these are not values that spring from the market, they are the values we bring to it. They don’t come from market forces they come from the heart, and they are the values nurtured in families and in schools, in our shared institutions and our neighbourhoods.


The notion that values spring "from the heart" is so vague as to be almost meaningless. Nor can they be reduced to "rules" - though so much of the New Labour agenda has assumed that that they can. Later, in what I imagine is a nod in the direction of his audience, he asserted that the values he's so keen on have their origin in religion:

Christians do not say that people shoufd be reduced merely to what they can produce or what they can buy - that we should let the weak go under and only the strong survive. No, we say do to others what you would have them do unto you.

And when Judaism says love your neighbour as yourself. When Muslims say no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. When Buddhists say hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. When Sikhs say treat others as you would be treated yourself. When Hindus say the sum of duty is do not unto others which would cause pain if done to you, they each and all reflect a sense that we all share the pain of others, and a sense that we believe in something bigger than ourselves - that we cannot be truly content while others face despair, cannot be completely at ease while others live in fear, cannot be satisfied while others are in sorrow. We all feel, regardless of the source of our philosophy, the same deep moral sense that each of us is our brother and sisters’ keeper.

What he's talking about, the "golden rule", has however little or nothing to do with "the heart", and is not the product of any particular religious insight - though the founders and theorists of religion have usually co-opted it. It is, rather, the fundamental building block of, yes, markets. It is about mutuality and exchange, honest dealing, the foundation of the relationship of trust that makes the market system possible. In a genuinely free market, your choice of trading partner will be based on a number of factors, including reputation, efficiency, quality of service or product and, of course, price (which is, at base, a guarantee that the other party is not trying to profiteer at your expense). A genuinely free market will reward effort and punish shoddiness and sharp practice. A genuinely free market does not need morality to be imposed upon it; it is rather the source of morality.

Brown has things quite the wrong way around. Rather than morality (or "values") being extraneous to the market, something which must be imposed to make the market function in an acceptable manner, it springs from the human experience of relating one to another, of which trade is merely a formalisation. Biologists have traced the golden rule to the phenomenon of reciprocal altruism, of which (appropriately, no doubt) vampire bats are the classic illustration. It is in the interest of bats to share the fruits of their bloodsucking with other, less advantaged bats, because the night may come when they themselves will have to rely on the generosity of a fellow bat. From such humble beginnings derive our ethics, our markets, and all the most valuable insights of religion.

But what is a "value" anyway? It is a measure of what something is worth. And a "worthy" person is morally an upright one. It can't be a coincidence that so high a proportion of our ethical - and even religious - vocabulary consists of metaphors derived from the market, as do many terms of approbation. "She has a heart of gold", we say. "He's a diamond". So-and-so has "stirling qualities". If someone does you a favour you are in their debt, you owe them. And there's no such thing as a free lunch. Sooner or later will come payback time. You will be held to account for your actions.

As for religion, the Old Testament reports that the king of Babylon was "weighed in the balance and found wanting", and tells us that the price of a virtuous woman is "far above rubies". In the "parable of the talents" (a talent being a large quantity of silver) Jesus speaks of spiritual capital as a sum of money with which you should speculate to accumulate. Respect, in life, has to be earned. Conversely, we believe that criminals should "pay" for their crimes, that betrayal is a sell-out and that politicians who lecture the rest of us while enjoying the privileges of office are morally bankrupt.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

"But as we are discovering to our considerable cost, the problem is that without transparent rules to guide them, free markets can reduce all relationships to transactions, all motivations to self interest, all sense of value to consumer choices, all sense of worth to a price tag So unbridled and untrammeled, they can become the enemy of the good society." Delete "free markets" and insert "[some] MPs" - it makes more sense.

WeepingCross said...

This is somewhat idealistic, Heresiarch. The market is a means of exchanging goods, not regulating human relationships, and doesn't specify what those goods may or may not be; and reciprocal altruism is a very conservative way of approaching interactions - it makes as much sense to bet that, all things being equal, your money will talk loud enough to insulate you against the need for it. Besides, wouldn't you in other circumstances point to the humanist moralities of Classical Greece long before the term 'market' makes any sense? I find Dr Dawkins's 'lust to be good' a more convincing explanation of moral behaviour. No, I think we need protection against what the market can do - but we can do it better by believing in other modes of interaction and acting on them, not by handing the responsibility to the state. In that respect you're right, this is glib and superficial. But then look who he's talking to.

The Heresiarch said...

Actually, Father W, I think the Classical Greek example rather proves my point. The Greeks had a market economy: the agora was the heart of Greek life. Socrates evolved his philosophy while strolling around the market in Athens. It was surely because they had open markets that the Greeks began thinking philosophically at all: exchange of goods becomes exchange of ideas (another market metaphor). Even religion implies a trading relationship with a deity: sacrifice is often seen as payment for an expected service, for example, as are oaths and vows. If you cure my child I will go on pilgrimage, says the believer.

found causes said...

I recommend Freakonomics and especially The Undercover Economist and for more of this excellent line of thought. The books have a great illustrations of the various motivations at play within an economy - not just greed, but honour and kindness.

What stands out to me is this: once you put a price on something that should be done out of duty, the price will never be enough.

TJ said...

@The Heresiarch

The Greeks had a market economy: the agora was the heart of Greek life.

The economy of ancient Greece was based on slavery - how do square this with the notion that the source of Greek ethical philosophy was the free market?

The Heresiarch said...

Like all moral systems, that of the Greeks had blind spots. Slavery was one of those blind spots. Of course, the relationship between masters and slaves wasn't based on the market economy - that's why the slaves had such a bad time. If you own the labour of a slave, you don't contract any reciprocal obligations towards him (keeping him alive and healthy are in your interests, not his). Nevertheless, the moral principles of the market can be extended to encompass slaves and other disadvantaged groups: that's part of moral progress.

My argument with Gordon Brown is that he claims moral values come from "the heart", or religion, or some other outside source and have to be extended to the market by means of regulations. This endangers not merely the free operation of the markets, and so ultimately our prosperity, but also morality itself, which comes to be seen as a set of rules that must be complied with. You see this, for example, in MPs claiming that because they have kept within "the rules" when claiming our money they've done nothing "wrong". Whereas a market-inspired morality would ask "Am I fulfilling my reciprocal duty towards my constituents by ripping them off like this?" and answer "No".

WeepingCross said...

Yes, I think you've caught me there on the values of the agora - the Greeks did have a money economy. And your subsequent comments are absolutely right on the specious account of morality from Mr Brown and the erosion of real moral behaviour. Nevertheless, I think behind what he's saying (arguably a long way behind) is a worthwhile recognition that we are not now in the same environment of face-to-face reciprocal relationships that characterised the agora. What you're leaving out is the basic motor of the market, which is to buy cheap and sell dear. Any statement that some things shouldn't be sold, or any action that goes against that basic rule, has to come from somewhere else - for instance, a pre-NHS doctor refraining from charging his poorer patients because he knows paying him his going rate will hurt them. That kind of action doesn't seem to me to have any market-based rationale - or can you think of one?

The Heresiarch said...

Not if you restrict the relationship to that between the doctor and one particular poorer patient, no. But the pre-NHS doctor (or a modern lawyer working pro bono) is only able to do so by being an effective market operator, with a sufficient number of paying patients to fund his extra services. On a grander scale, such instincts underlie philanthropy. Bill Gates can only afford to spend billions on Africa because he has made billions as a ruthless operator in the market.

A market economy can only operate with popular consent, certainly in a liberal society. It is thus in the interests of the winners to be, or appear to be, philanthropic and charitable. Most of the anger directed at the Fred Goodwins (and the Jacqui Smiths, come to that) comes from a perception that they haven't fulfilled their side of the bargain. Bargain - another market metaphor. It's remarkable how often they crop up when discussing ethics - as I said in the main piece, I don't think it can be a coincidence.

I don't say that everyone involved in the free market is moral. Many of them are greedy bastards. Obviously. What I do say is that the "values" celebrated by Brown both derive from thinking about markets and also form a natural part of a well-functioning market. If our markets don't exhibit these virtues then they aren't properly functioning - they should rediscover their own values, though, not have inappropriate new ones imposed from outside.

"Buy cheap and sell dear" is only one, rather small, principle of a functioning market economy. On its own, it would produce a dysfunctional economy of spivs and con men; which may be what has happened, of course. Thought of as a series of single transactions with different customers, it may work. But trade also involves building up relationships with customers who seek quality and value. If you're constantly ripping them off they won't come back and you'll probably go out of business. The true principle (in the limited case of the selling of commodities) is "buy and sell at the best price you can obtain", which is (or should be) slightly different.

Matt said...

"Bill Gates can only afford to spend billions on Africa because he has made billions as a ruthless operator in the market."

Yes, and now we have a global monopoly of Microsoft products that have largely stifled diversity, and therefore progress. Well done Bill.

The example of computer software is a good one though, as it shows some real glimmers of hope for the long-term future, with all the real innovation and progress all happening in the open-source free software movement.

Only when shareholders' interests come +after+ customers' interests, will the idea of this version of capitalism being "good" in any meaningful sense not be a joke.

TJ said...

@Heresiarch:

Thanks for replying.

I agree with your basic point that Gordon Brown et al seem to imagine morality is something that should be or can be imposed from above, and that this idea is bogus.

But I think you're mistaking correlation for causality with the idea that:

a market-inspired morality would ask "Am I fulfilling my reciprocal duty towards my constituents by ripping them off like this?" and answer "No".

Your implying that free markets create morality and ethical behaviour, no?

I'd say that effective free markets and moral behaviour arise from the same source: cultural norms.

Obviously it's a chicken/egg problem as to which came first: culture or free markets.

I'd say that you clearly need a reasonably moral culture before free markets work properly, and after their creation free markets may well help enforce ethical norms through the mechanisms you describe.


Do you really think moral behaviour emerges principally from free market behaviour?

McDuff said...

So you're saying that back in the day, proto-humans discovered how to mine pure The Market out of the ground, and then while bathing in the ambrosia of exchanging goods and services they suddenly discovered how to talk to each other and behave ethically?

And if not... what exactly are you saying? You seem to be genuinely making the argument not only that The Market™ is in some way inherently moral - a proposition not merely lacking in evidence but seemingly counter to it - but saying that only due to the transactional notion of markets do we have any idea about ethics or morality. It is as if the other sub-structures of society have been cast aside, that nobody could expect to create an evolving system of ethics in a family, an army or a farm. I simply do not understand how you could see such a thing as remotely plausible.

Now, the meta-analysis here demands the question: if I don't see how it could be plausible, is it not possible that it's not the argument that you're making. Could it be, instead, that you're offering up a firey version of a much more plausible hypothesis, that markets are simply an extension of the human capacity for communication and interaction with other members of the species, and that as a result the actions of people within them are both informed by and inform the evolving moralities of the societies they are in. And I wish that this were so, but such a neutered version of the stronger claim, although it would have the advantage of 'truth' to it, wouldn't seem to justify the post at all. Certainly when you brush over the market activities of slave traders as a mere "blind spot" while decrying anyone who would suggest that external moral codes should be imposed upon The Market and its infinite wisdom I find it hard to believe that you were relying on the weak case - such evangelical levels of bias do not lend themselves well to half measures.

What's funny is that I didn't have you pegged as a free market fundamentalist. I would have thought even a few weeks ago that were I to put the proposition to the Heresiarch that markets, like languages, are amoral, that just as one can commit slander or write a love poem so one can sell slaves or washing machines, and that the act of exchanging one thing for another contained no inherent moral characteristics whatsoever, that it would have been considered a reasonable thing to say. But that would fly in the face of this post, and remove the entire point of chastising Gordon Brown for suggesting that bans on slavery or usury were right and proper but didn't spring full-formed from the cleft heads of the market themselves.

The Heresiarch said...

The argument I'm making (or suggesting, hinting at, tossing out as a random thought that had occurred to me while reading Brown's oration with its repeated references to "values") is that The Market is a source of much of our ethical language and metaphor. This suggests, to me, that the trading relationship that develops in a market enables people to think about ethics and morality in new and interesting ways, and has thus been a source of human progress.

Before the formalisation of relationships in the marketplace, there were "primitive", intuitive forms of social relationship: parent and child, sexual partnership, the wider kinship systems of the tribe, and the relationship of subordinate to superior in a dominance hierarchy. All such "natural" relationships are mediate by, and encourage, pre-moral forms of repriprocity: bribes, threats, genetic claims, feelings of social solidarity ("bonding") etc. These are, perhaps, the sources of morality. But by themselves are not moral, in fact they can be the opposite of morality as we understand it. We think it's wrong to bribe or threaten others or promote our relatives against better-qualified non-relatives, for example.

How does an intuitive, pre-modern moral system, with its honour codes, nepotism and palm-greasing, evolve into a progressive, humanistic one? My suggestion is that the market provides the metaphors - and experience - that enables this leap to be made. Thus The Market gives us those very "values" that Gordon Brown celebrated in his speech, which he claimed we "bring to the market". We don't bring these values to the market, we derive them from the market.

McDuff said...

But, and here I'll admit that you're presenting this as a series of muses rather than as a full formed sociological thesis, those exact same arguments can be brought to bear against The Market itself, be it in its theoretical Platonic form or in the more mundane and corroded incarnations which have the dubious but notable distinction of actually having existed in reality.

The language of barter and trade may well be reflected in talk of ethical interactions between people, but that's far from compelling evidence that notions of fairness, reciprocity and social justice required people to act out the metaphor by purchasing goods before they could grasp them. Indeed, there is intriguing evidence suggesting that the concept of "fairness" may be built in to animals at an instinctual level as low down the intelligence chain as dogs and cats.

This seems to be a reiteration of the Ur-Capitalist myth, that life was all savagery before money. But as we have seen countless times, life is quite often savage when we do have money and complex market structures, it's just that the savagery wears a suit and calls itself civilisation. The idea that our system of morality has "evolved beyond" nepotism, honour codes and palm greasing just because we have the language to talk about such things is naive in the extreme. Were we living in a transparent meritocracy I could see the argument, but we are not and never have done, and The Market has defended aristocracies as long as it has been around. Again, the language might be right, but the values themselves rarely show up as often in the markets as their staunchest defenders would have us believe.

For all Brown's meandering waffle in trying to chastise people for doing the things he encouraged them to do for a decade, it's hardly as if the notion that markets left unchecked produce socially undesirable results is either contrary to the evidence at hand nor an especially radical departure from the philosophies of anyone but the most devoted Market Fundamentalists. Indeed, the notion that markets might just be functional structures occupied by actual human beings, and that they might require social rules so that people don't take advantage of each other like the vicious little apes we are, seems to be so staggeringly obvious I can't help but wonder why it never occurred to him in all his ten years as Chancellor.

The Heresiarch said...

Of course we haven't evolved morally to a point where nepotism, corruption etc have been eliminated. But we have evolved to a point where most people accept that they are wrong. Compare that with parts of the world where the modern market system hasn't developed properly... I mention no names, but some of them are hot and have a lot of oil.

McDuff said...

Oh absolutely. Those damn Muslim devils have far less sophisticated moral codes than we do, that's a given.

Hang on, wait, what? The only reason that's not borderline racist is because it's left the border behind and is accelerating towards the highlands.

Western societies are all about nepotism and corruption. Do you think that MPs and CEOs all genuinely enjoy golf? That the advantage of going to Harvard Business School is principally down to the stellar education? That the Bush family are just exceptionally talented at politics? The greasing of palms, the knowing of people, the mutual scratching of backs, the helping out of someone's son because you've been friends for donkey's years, by jove: these things are all very much alive and well and thriving, and if people believe that they are wrong it's only to the extent that they aren't personally benefiting from them. I mean, correct me if I am wrong here but are we not, currently, in a global recession precisely because the people running the money markets at the very top level were all self-serving weasels giving tender reach-arounds to the politicians who, rather than submitting to their soothing caresses, should have been keeping an eye on whose grubby paws were reaching for the cookie jar? Yes, sure, people are up in arms about it, but I think it's significant to note that the people neck-deep in the market which supposedly gives us the values we need to help ourselves out of the mess were the ones who have been responsible for creating it. If the market has the power to save our moral souls it's pretty damn arbitrary about who it chooses to anoint with the blessings, isn't it?

I'm not even sure what your construction is meant to reveal that's good about the market's supposed ethical contribution. Here in the glorious west we still behave the same way, but we've invented a mythology about our own moral superiority based on an idea that we disapprove of our own behaviour, even though we don't disapprove of it enough to actually not do it? Is this a cultural selling point? Do we deserve a medal in the self-righteousness olympics?

I'm boggled, I really am. I don't see how anyone could claim that "The West" is homogenously more ethically sophisticated than "The Middle East" unless they had been to neither The West nor The Middle East, but had possibly spent their entire lives on the moon reading nothing but The Spectator. The trouble with being racist is that you can only really get away with it if you've got at least a smattering of relationship to fact in there. But since the people of London have never struck me as being significantly more selfless than the people of Cairo I can only assume you're just making shit up to try and justify an unjustifiable point. What next, some kind of claim that African nations are in financial trouble because the black man's never been especially good at mathematics?

The Heresiarch said...

If you were to calm down and not make lazy imputations, you might get the point. Though you probably wouldn't.

I never suggested that the actual behaviour of people benefiting from a capitalist market economy (or who live in a society that evolved the system, ie "the west") is likely to be better. Of course corruption exists in all countries. But at least it is (formally) generally acknowledged to be a bad thing; whereas in many other parts of the world, such an acknowledgement seems unnatural. Thus when BAe was caught out bribing Saudi princes it was excused on the grounds that it wasn't corruption but just the way things were done in that part of the world. To my mind, it's that sort of attitude that smacks of condescension and "racism" (a poor word when directed purely towards cultural norms) not the converse.

WeepingCross said...

"Bill Gates can only afford to spend billions on Africa because he has made billions as a ruthless operator in the market"

Yes, but your argument suggests that it's his making the billions that has provided, not just the means of his philanthropy, but the reason for being philanthropic. Even if such philanthropists are behaving cynically in order to appeal to their customers for their moral quality rather than the quality of the goods they provide, it still assumes somebody has a set of moral assumptions which lie beyond the market itself. I don't think you've taken enough account of that. There is no conceivable reason in the market why Bill Gates has to give away anything; he just has to produce usable computer software (and arguably not even do that).

What I think you are spot-on about is the development of progressive morality by the interaction of market values with instinctual ones, that's a very interesting insight. It doesn't mean the instinctual values cease to be relevant, though, in fact it would be humanly catastrophic if they did. It is, absolutely, an interaction, a meditation and mutual casting of light, not just a penetration of one by the other.

McDuff said...

Here's why that fails to make your point. People buy things and sell them in Saudi Arabia all the time. They have a market economy, as anyone who's ever been over there will tell you. True, it may not be a Western market economy, but they have had formalised rules surrounding the buying and selling of goods and services of at least the level of sophistication that - to pick an example purely at random - the Greeks of Plato's era had for quite some time now, and the general rules are pretty much the same, you know. People in Middle Eastern countries are not ignorant of the moral considerations surrounding an economic transaction.

So even if the societies of the Middle East themselves suffered from a deficit of values, it hardly seems likely that you could pin that on the fact that they weren't exposed to the exchange of goods, and thus metaphorically to the exchange of ideas and a 'market-inspired morality' of reciprocal obligation. Rather than proving the point you wished to make, if you're right about the causes of BAE's behaviour then you're wrong about your larger point.

And, while I think your larger point is still overreaching to an absurd degree, I'm not convinced that you could use the behaviour of a multi-billion Western transnational company in their dealings with Middle Eastern autocratic dictators to draw general conclusions about the ethics of the majority of people in the Middle East, although you could probably draw some fairly decent conclusions about the behaviour of autocratic dictators and transnational companies. The extent to which people in the Middle East (or Africa, or Eastern Europe, or South America) agree that "that's how things are done here" is rarely down to people thinking that corruption is good as much as them thinking, well, that's actually how it's done there whether they like it or not. I can think of one exception to that from my own experience, and that's a friend from Zimbabwe who holds that the system of bribery in his country is actually formalised enough to make it preferable to the internecine jungles of forms and bureaucracy we have to negotiate in this country, which drive him spare and cost him more money. But again, that's a simple practical concern, holding up two flawed systems and deciding that one costs him personally less, not making any kind of objective moral judgement about the relative ethics of bureaucracy vs bribes.

Western countries get away with bribing foreign dictators not because the foreign dictators aren't capitalist - indeed, they know what resources they've got and they know how to charge the best prices for access to them - but because they're dictators who exist outside the system of law. They're not too ethically naive to never have heard of the concept of good governance, they're just too rich and powerful to give a rat's kiester.

As I said, when you look at the behaviours of Citi, Enron, Blackwater et al, it's hard to make the case that our supposed ethical superiority translates into improved ethical behaviour. And if the "actual behaviour" of people isn't better, as you so freely admit, one could make a pretty good argument that the only difference between people in the West and the Middle East on this issue is that we're kidding ourselves more.

Of course, that would be a vast oversimplification. But significantly less oversimplified than imagining that western markets provide a framework for advanced morality that those backwards countries like Saudi Arabia can't grasp.

Incidentally, I don't think it's lazy to call it how I see it. No matter how allegedly sophisticated the arguments, if it walks like a cultural superiority complex and quacks like fallacious reasoning, well, it's probably a duck that drinks in the same bars as the White Man's Burden, and as tempting as that road always seems to be to a certain kind of temperament, we really should have learned better than that by now.