One of the stranger and more problematic changes in the modern period is the way in which “markets” have taken over some of the adjectives and qualities once reserved for the traditional Western conception of God. How so?
As is well known, Western religious tradition (Judaism and Christianity) came to understand God as an omniscient, all-powerful, and all good being. That was not always the case, by the way, but was the product of a merger between Greco-Roman philosophical ideas and Near Eastern inspired ideas about God in early Judaism and Christianity.
Under the influence of the modern discipline of economics, however, markets have come to be thought of in many of the same ways, definitely as all-seeing and all-good, if not “all-powerful” as well. What does it mean to say that the market has these god-like qualities?
The Market as God
To begin with, markets are treated in modern economics as if they are omniscient – as if they have a God’s eye view of the hundreds of thousands of human economic transactions that take place among individuals. Because of this capability, markets can do a better job than any human individual or “central planning” committee in making decisions about what products to produce and what prices to set. This view of the market has dominated much of economics since the writings of Adam Smith, who is treated as the modern father of economics. Along with this view of the market is the assumption that what markets produce, unaided and on their own, is morally better for human beings than would otherwise be the case. The claim is not that the market has a conscience, but through the medium of human exchange and the countless decisions of individuals, the market produces effects that are best economically and morally. Thus to interfere in markets with regulations or unnecessary laws is to undermine what is good and right.
The role of human individual in all this is simply to pursue his or her own self-interest, which is what helps the market do its job the best. By being self-interested, one is by definition being moral. There are two implied qualities of markets here that resemble what used to be thought of as qualities of God; first, markets have a kind of omniscience that is superior to the insight of individual human morality, and second, they are a source of morality, for by pursing one’s self-interest one is pursuing what is best for everyone everywhere. Free markets, therefore, are morally the best way of organizing human life.
The Invisible Hand Metaphor
The metaphor that has come in the modern period to stand for this conception of the market is the “the invisible hand.” Although this phase was used only once in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, it has come to symbolize our particular modern economic understanding of markets. While Adam Smith likely did not think of the invisible hand as the direct workings of God, the metaphor itself is suggestive in concretizing the way in which the market has come to usurp some of the divine being’s qualities in the imagination of the modern West.
Contrary to what you may be thinking, my argument here is not that we should abandon this understanding of the market in favor of returning to a more traditional conception of an omniscient, all-powerful God. Those who have such a traditional conception of God are arguably lucky that they can put their faith in a personal Being who knows what “He” is doing and has our collective best interests at heart.
Many of us, however, simply can’t believe in such a traditional conception. We can’t step outside of the post-enlightenment skins we were born into and embrace this particular personal and theistic conception of God. To be sure, there are various other conceptions of God that are less traditional and less personal, that allow many post-enlightenment individuals to embrace a conception of God or spirit, without compromising either their endorsement of science or their sense that can be multiple sources of truth.
For those of us who do not or cannot embrace a traditional notion of God, the question remains how much the market should become the deity’s symbolic replacement? Should we buy into this view that the market is the source of wisdom and morality, when left to its own devices?
That is essentially the argument of “market liberals,” whether they are found in the libertarian party, the Tea Party and in many other strands of the Republican party. Essentially, the call to endorse markets as self-sufficient and morally good asks us as individuals to give up our own moral sentiments and place them in the hands of an invisible hand that can do a better job producing results that are good for all. The fact that the results of markets operating on their own do not look very good to us, we are told, is a false perspective or false consciousness.
Ignore Your Moral Sense
When we see poverty, environmental destruction, wealth inequality, racism, and so forth, we are looking at things the wrong way. We should instead be seeing the accomplishments of markets, the medical achievements and technological breakthroughs, the growth in the standard of living, and the lengthening of the average lifespan. Human life is better overall, the argument goes, when we let the markets drive themselves and step out of the way. Any moral intuition that we should prevent markets from having their own way is thus false consciousness. Our moral sentiments should be suspended and we should let the market be our guide.
The view of the market as a source of wisdom and morality gives the market some of the characteristics that once were reserved for a traditional notion of God. Under this modern worldview that has developed, the economist has taken the place that was traditionally reserved for the Catholic priest. Using their mathematical models, which to the vast majority of us lay people is simply mumbo jumbo, economists tell us that they can discern the workings of a deep moral order in which we the lay people can neither validate nor understand. “Trust us,” they say, “for we can reveal the truth and the moral good.”
The Economist as Priest
There is an interesting and deep analogy here between the economists who preside over today’s moral order of the market and the priests of the Catholic Church who were in charge of accessing God and the sacred before the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation represented a questioning of the system in which access to God and morality had to be via the intermediary of the priest. The Reformation articulated a view that the individual could access God and morality directly, without an expert intermediary. We need something similar now to dethrone the economists who are presented as the source of moral insight.
The market should not be our God and economists should no longer be our source of morality. It is time to revive the notion that our conscience, inspired by God or spirit, or whatever our source of moral intuition is, should be our guide in judging the effects of markets. What is needed, in other words, is a new kind of “reformation,” that encourages individuals to trust their moral outrage at the effects of markets and to disbelieve the economists’ assurances that the market knows best.
*I’ve discussed this topic in more detail in my book, Beyond Liberty Alone.