9/04/2009                                                                                       View Comments

Free-Market Morality

by Larry Spencer

For years as a Christian, I struggled to understand how atheists could have any morality at all. If there's no God telling you what to do, why not do whatever you want? And won't that lead to all manner of selfish behavior?

Earlier this year, I finally understood. Maybe the analogy below will help people here explain to others how atheists can be truly moral.

Michael Boskin
, who served the first president Bush, went to the USSR to help them move to a market economy. Here's a little story he tells.
The head of Gosplan [the USSR's planning agency] was supposed to preside over price reform in the Soviet Union and thus the move to a free market. At our first meeting he inquired of me, "Who sets the prices in your economy?" Flabbergasted, I explained that, although we had a few industries that were regulated by the government, for the overwhelming bulk of products the interaction of numerous producers and still more numerous consumers determined prices in our economy.

Furthermore, repeating Adam Smith's famous dictum, I said that this invisible hand of the market produced the greatest good for the greatest number. The head of Gosplan repeated, "So who sets the prices in your economy?" Thinking that there might have been something wrong with the translation, we went back and forth several times. It was clear he could not imagine an economy in which somebody in the government did not set the prices. He pulled out a 1960s-style giant computer printout that listed the prices for virtually every product in the Soviet Union. America had a market economy, I was the American president's economic adviser, he had been told by Gorbachev that I would help, so who, he thought, was better able to determine what the new prices should be?

The analogy is obvious:
  • For "economy" substitute "moral system."
  • For "price" substitute "moral worth."
  • For "state planning agency" substitute "God who gives moral orders."
  • For "free market" substitute "evolution."
So, I'm thinking that an atheist/humanist moral system is like a free market. Over time, people -- without guidance from the Top -- arrive at a moral code. Although no God has dictated the moral code, virtually everybody knows what the moral worth of each action is, just as people in a free-market economy know what the price of each item "should be," more or less. These moral-worth values are just as real and meaningful as prices in a free market.

The analogy continues...

If someone in either type of economy is caught either attempting to under-pay or over-charge for an item, society will punish him. If someone in either type of economy deals fairly, he will usually benefit from his good reputation. Likewise, the social market punishes or rewards free-market vice or virtue.

In a free-market moral system, as in a free-market economy, there may appear to be an Invisible Hand that is setting the prices/morality, but actually it's just the collected wisdom of individuals as gathered and organized by organic, market forces.

Free-market morality is just as real and effective as the free-market economy so praised by the religious right. In a command economy, prices are sometimes set inappropriately. This results in shortages or surpluses. These are evidence of underlying free-market forces asserting themselves against the prevailing faulty state planning. Likewise with morality-excessively-by-the-Book the moral code can lag behind societal conditions. This allows (some might say perpetuates) evils such as slavery or genocide if the Book in question allows such practices. Unrest occurs when the free-market moral code (which is aware that genocide is wrong, for example) struggles against the Book (or its outmoded interpretations).

There is also a weakness in the free-market moral code. Because its derivation is organic and mysterious, it's almost impossible to reason from it in specific cases. You can only get so far appealing to common sense. It's one thing to say "we ought to help the less-fortunate" but quite another to say whether that means the tax rate should be 30% or 35%. It's one thing to say, "everyone deserves a life of dignity" but another to say whether euthanasia for terminal cancer patients will start society down a too-slippery slope. On the other hand, those types of moral conundrums are argued-over almost as much by people who have a Book or a God to guide them! I guess the debate, even appealing to vague principles whose origins are mysterious or unspoken, serves to keep the prevailing moral code more or less appropriate. After all, that same vague debate is how the moral code got there (in this view)!

So, each type of morality has its weaknesses, but certainly free-market morality is just as real and effective as the free-market economy so praised by the religious right.

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