Is the market moral? Issue debated in new book
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Presidential candidates debate the effect of trade and outsourcing on American jobs. Company mismanagement and corporate financial scandals also result in job losses. As these issues unfold, a University of Michigan economic policy expert and a journalist seek answers to a fundamental question: Is the market moral?
"Addressing market failure requires that sometimes 'freedom to choose' gives way to other human values," said Rebecca Blank, dean of the U-M's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, who co-wrote the new book "Is the Market Moral? A Dialogue on Religion, Economics, and Justice" with journalist William McGurn.
Blank and McGurn debate the fundamental issues: equality and efficiency; productivity and social justice; individual achievement and personal rights in the workplace; and the costs and benefits of corporate and entrepreneurial capitalism. The authors will discuss their book during a panel discussion at the Brookings/Pew Forum at 2 p.m. Wednesday (May 19) at Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Blank says the market produces many good outcomes, but society cannot rely solely on the virtue and honesty of individual participants. Market structures must be designed to encourage virtuous behavior.
Government involvement in the economy is often necessary to help markets function more effectively, or to provide greater legitimacy to the economic system by distributing its rewards to a broader group in society, she says. Community organizations, such as churches, can also play an important role in both helping people participate in the market and—when necessary—protecting them from it.
"Market outcomes are rarely either good or bad," Blank said. "More frequently, they are both good and bad. Markets can generate new jobs and encourage the development of new human talents, even while they displace or disempower others whose skills are no longer as useful.
"Sometimes the government is needed to enforce community priorities that the market may not value. The challenge is to do this in ways that preserves the power of the market, which is to reward productivity and entrepreneurial skill."
Both authors call frequently on the arguments of their own faith traditions to discuss the ethics of the market. Blank discusses the conflict between self-interest in the market versus the call to serve others—or the conflict between a market system that assumes better and worse can always be measured by more or less material goods and a religious faith that values more spiritual virtues.
An economist and Protestant, Blank chaired the committee that wrote the statement on Christian faith and economic life adopted by the United Church of Christ. She was a senior staff economist the Council of Economic Advisers during the first Bush administration and was appointed to the Council under President Clinton.
McGurn, a Catholic, is a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. He has also held key positions for the National Review and Far Eastern Economic Review.
The book, published by the Brookings Institute, is the second volume in the Pew Forum Dialogues on Religion and Public Life.
Contact: Jared Wadley