The Virtues of the Market - Introduction

Today, we only know about the market’s corrosive strength that comodifies all relationships.  Instead, the time is right for a challenge: talking about this topic, freeing ourselves of fundamentalism and ideology, because ordinary life needs the market.

The market has many values. It’s time to discover them

By Luigino Bruni

Published in the weekly Vita, October 8, 2010

“[Salerio:] Antonio is sad to think upon his merchandise … [Antonio:] my merchandise makes me not sad” (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice).

This period of crisis (much deeper and more serious than just a financial or economic crisis) calls us back to individual and collective responsibility, even of thought. One dimension of such an appeal to responsibility is the need today to reopen a new, true and profound debate about the nature of business, banks, profit, market and, therefore, of capitalism.  The challenge is in being able to speak about these major aspects of civilization while freeing oneself from ideologies and overused words. Over the last twenty years, such ideologies and words have obstructed the reopening of a season of deep review and a highpoint of our economic system, for which people recognize a growing and urgent need. 

With this issue of Vita, we begin a series of articles about the market, boldly looking at economy from an unpopular and unusual perspective: market virtues.

But how is it possible to seriously talk about the market’s virtues when an influential part of today’s public opinion views market logic as corrupt of civil virtues, as it leads to the commercialization of all human relationships? I, myself, in various writings (including those previously hosted by Vita in the last few years), have highlighted the serious risks associated with fundamentalism in the market and its individual and collective vices. In as much as it is a human activity, the market is perfectible and should therefore always be subject to the critique of thought – especially in the times we have lived, are living and will very probably long live.

However, especially in periods of crisis, we believe that it is very important to call people, institutions and human reality back to their “vocation”, inviting them to rediscover, or finally discover, their best part. As those who have lived through serious crises know, and as those who have helped others overcome crises know, it is not possible to get out of this impasse of life if you do not find your own Socratic “daimon” again, if you do not draw from the best part of yourself, if you do not find or rediscover your own profound vocation.

Something similar happens for collective realities, institutions and society. In difficult moments, pessimism will not help. Instead, we need to know how to look deeper and draw from purer waters. In fact, we should always remember that the current phase of the market economy (which we can call financial-individualistic capitalism) arises from an anthropological pessimism that dates back to Luther, Calvin and Hobbes. The great hypothesis on which both economic theory and the economic system rest is the assumption that human beings are radically opportunists and too self-interested to think that they can commit themselves because of higher motivations (like the common good). Italian economist, Maffeo Pantaleoni, one of the founders of 20th century economy, wrote a very eloquent passage in this regard. In a writing from the beginning of the 1900s, he challenges the “optimists” to show that the motivations that lead “street sweepers to sweep, tailors to make suits, the tram conductor to work 12 hours of service on the tram, the miner to descend into the mine, the stockbroker to follow orders, the miller to buy and sell grain, the farmer to hoe the earth, etc., be they honors, dignity, spirit of sacrifice, the waiting for heavenly rewards, patriotism, love of neighbor, spirit of solidarity, imitation of ancestors and the good of descendents and not only a kind of benefit that calls itself economic.”

However, we cannot leave the last word about common living and the market to this anthropologic pessimism. We have an ethical responsibility to leave to those who come after us a more positive outlook on the world, on mankind, on politics and on the economy.
This different and positive outlook can start from a reflection on how the market “should be”, on its moral task in edifying a good and just society – a civil society that dies when community life is regulated only by the market but also dies or does not flourish without the market and its typical virtues. They are virtues that seem, and often are, far from the economic praxis of our time, and that is why they ought to be called back into our personal and collective consciousness.

In order to travel within the market’s virtues, let’s start again from the idea of market that the founders of traditional civil economy had and have. They include Italian and non-Italian economist: from Antonio Genovesi to John S. Mill, from Alfred Marshall to Luigi Einaudi, and from Giacomo Becattini to Robert Sugden. For these authors, even in different gradients, market exchange is also and above all a form of reciprocity and social tie, a branch of common living, pieces of life, with the same passions, the same vices and the same virtues. This goes if economy is considered as the study of human beings in the carrying out of “the affairs of everyday life”, as Alfred Marshall expressed in 1890.

Starting next week, then, we’ll begin to explore some of the virtues of the market.

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