The Economics of Caring and Sharing

JUNE 22, 2011 by DWIGHT R. LEE

The author would like to thank the Earhart Foundation for supporting his previous research on happiness, which led to considerations on which the present paper is based.

If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or say our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them.

—F. A. Hayek,
The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism

The widespread belief that markets are immoral is a major reason they are so poorly understood and so rarely appreciated. This belief is not easily overcome. The fundamental problem is that our instinctive sense of morality, which I shall call magnanimous morality (the morality of caring and sharing), makes it easy to see markets as morally flawed. Furthermore, the explanation economists give for what they see as the major advantage of markets reinforces the instinctive tendency to see them as immoral. Unless economists recognize the source of this hostility and acknowledge it is based on a praiseworthy morality—but one not fundamental to the success of markets—there can be little progress overcoming the view that markets are immoral. This would be a shame since there is a strong moral case to be made for markets.

Markets are based on a morality, which I shall call market morality, that helps to direct our actions into a global pattern of mutual assistance which appears to result from magnanimous morality but in fact could never be achieved by that morality. Because market morality lacks instinctive appeal, there is widespread support for attempts to create a more moral economic order by substituting magnanimous morality for market morality. Such attempts unavoidably erode the benefits from both moralities and lower the overall morality of the economy.

I wish to emphasize the difference between magnanimous and market moralities, showing that each supplements the other in contributing to a moral social order—but only if they are confined to their proper spheres of human action.


The Magnanimous Morality of Caring and Sharing

We instinctively think of morality as personally caring for and sharing with others. It can be defined briefly as satisfying three conditions: 1) helping others intentionally; 2) doing so at a personal sacrifice; and 3) providing the help to identifiable individuals or groups. Behavior of this sort is clearly beneficial to the well-being of small groups in which the members are in close personal contact and knowledgeable of the circumstances and concerns of one another. We spent most of our evolutionary history in small hunter/gatherer tribes fitting this description, so a strong affinity for magnanimous morality has been hardwired into our emotional makeup. Its presence or absence has predictable effects on how we view behavior and social arrangements.

The enduring popularity of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, illustrates the emotional appeal of intentionally caring for and sharing with identifiable people at personal sacrifice. Ebenezer Scrooge is introduced as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” with no regard for the welfare of this employee, Bob Cratchit, his own family, or anyone else. But after Scrooge’s encounter with the ghost of his former partner and the three ghosts of Christmas he experiences a moral transformation. He finds true happiness in paying for the medical care needed by Tiny Tim, the Cratchits’ crippled son, raising Bob’s salary, and more generally using his wealth for the benefit of others.

The appeal of magnanimous morality is fully warranted and understandable. The relationships we have with family and friends are rooted in it, providing us with our greatest happiness and most satisfying and meaningful moments. It should be emphasized that magnanimous morality is not inconsistent with the proper functioning of a market economy. Success in market transactions depends on being sensitive to the concerns of others. And this sensitivity seems to extend beyond strictly market transactions. Based on experimental evidence from a number of countries with wide differences in the degree of integration into global markets, Herb Gintis concludes, “[S]ocieties that use markets extensively develop a culture of cooperation, fairness and respect for the individual” (quoted in Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist).

It should also be admitted, however, that the proper functioning of a market economy does not depend primarily on magnanimous morality. Indeed, the morality on which markets primarily depend is easily seen as rejecting magnanimous morality, and the way most economists make the case for markets encourages this view and the instinctive hostility that so many have for markets.


The Morality of the Market

Market morality is rather modest, with little if any emotional appeal; in fact, it scarcely seems to deserve the name “morality,” instead being commonly seen as a justification for behavior widely held to be immoral. This morality can be defined as following the general rules and norms of market exchanges, such as respecting property rights, honoring contractual obligations, and not harming others by violating their legitimate rights and expectations through force or fraud. Market morality can be achieved, according to Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “by sitting still and doing nothing.” And while markets reward kindness and caring for those with whom we have personal exchanges, the vast majority of the exchanges we benefit from are impersonal; we neither know nor meaningfully care for those on the other side of the exchange.

Since these impersonal exchanges create enormous benefits from outcomes that emerge without conscious direction, people seldom give much thought to those benefits or the market morality on which they depend. Of course people do think about markets occasionally, but when they do it is seldom with appreciation for the benefits they are receiving. More often than not people think about markets when they are being inconvenienced by the market discipline—the requirements “imposed” on us, for example, in return for income—that makes their benefits possible. Few of us connect such discipline to the far greater benefits we receive as a consequence, particularly when we see others who appear to be reaping great rewards from the very discipline that is apparently making us so much worse off. Under these circumstances it is easy to conclude that we are imposed on unnecessarily by the greed of others. How easy it is to also believe there is something immoral with an economic system that not only tolerates greed but also rewards it.

When economists make the case for what they see as the most impressive feature of markets, they typically do so with the aid of Adam Smith in a way that reinforces the view that markets at best lack morality. Smith understood and appreciated magnanimous morality, as any reader of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his first book, knows. But this would not be known to someone who knew only Smith’s “invisible hand” argument for markets in The Wealth of Nations. The advantage of markets, according to Smith, is that by pursuing their own interests in the marketplace, people unintentionally do more to promote the public interest (the interest of no one in particular) than if it had been their intention to do so. This argument ignores every requirement for magnanimous morality, and the way economists phrase the argument makes it easy for people to conclude erroneously that the argument for the market rules out the more personal caring and sharing in which our personal relationships are rooted.

I am not proposing that economists discard the invisible-hand explanation of the market. But to make the case for the morality of markets, economists should recognize the tendency for people to dismiss the benefits of the market for its apparent moral failing and counter that tendency by pointing out the inability of magnanimous morality to achieve the desirable economic outcomes expected of it.


Demanding More Than Magnanimous Morality Can Deliver

The belief that markets are immoral causes many either to fail to notice or to dismiss the benefits they realize from them. For example, while most people claim to value conservation and clearly benefit from the conservation that smoothes the availability of goods and resources over time, the nearly unanimous criticism of speculators, whose profit-seeking behavior makes this conservation possible, suggests that most people are unaware that this is a benefit of markets.

Even those aware that they are receiving a benefit from market activity commonly feel it is contaminated by the process providing it. This was illustrated after Hurricane Fran knocked out power in Raleigh, North Carolina, in September 1996. According to Michael Munger, four men from Goldsboro, North Carolina (an hour from Raleigh), rented two freezer trucks and drove to Raleigh with a thousand bags of ice, which they bought for $1.70 each. Customers quickly queued up to pay $8 a bag, with each limited to five bags. Some complained about the price, but no one refused to pay. With the line still long, the local police arrived in force, arrested the four men for price gouging, and confiscated their trucks and all the remaining ice—which was not distributed to those in line. Surprisingly, at least to economists, the frustrated shoppers applauded the police for arresting those whose activities would have made them better off; would the customers have been happier had the sellers not bothered at all? The applause strongly suggests that those in the line felt that the benefit for which they had lined up was contaminated by the profit motive.

Or consider the idea of getting consumers in developed countries to pay extra for “fair trade” coffee, bananas, tea, and chocolate to reduce the poverty of poor farmers in developing countries. Assuming the premiums paid for “fair trade” products go to the intended recipients and forgetting Gene Callahan’s economic analysis suggesting these recipients may be harmed even if they do (“Is Fair Trade a Fair Deal?,” Freeman, March 2008), it is clear that “fair trade” advocates are sincere in their belief that this approach will reduce poverty and hope that it will catch on with consumers. Yet many are conflicted by what has been described as a paradox in the “fair trade” movement resulting from the widespread hostility toward markets that pervades it. As described by Sarah Lyon and Mark Moberg in Fair Trade and Social Justice, “In seeking social justice . . . fair trade . . . pursues a market-based solution to the very problems developing from free markets.” When large corporations such as Starbucks, Nestlé, Walmart, and McDonald’s signed on to sell “Fair Trade” products, which would clearly increase sales and supposedly the incomes of poor farmers, many in the movement objected. Representative of these objections are those voiced by Pedro Haslam and Nicholas Hoskyns (in their contribution to The Fair Trade Revolution), who see these corporations motivated by “marketing success rather than ideology.” “[F]air trade certified farmers who sell to them [big corporations]. . . ,” they continue, “are still locked into the traditional supply chain dominated by the largest companies. This is not the vision of sustainability and community many of us started out with, where local family-owned businesses sell the products of small farmers and personal relations are maintained throughout the supply chain.”

These statements reflect hostility for economies based on “marketing success” and impersonal exchanges between large companies and the suppliers they depend on. The statements, and numerous others from “fair trade” enthusiasts, express a yearning for economies based on personal dealings between consumers in developed countries and those in poor countries who supply them with products anonymously. In this they are like many others who are emotionally attracted to the idea of economies based more on the magnanimous morality of caring and sharing and less on the market morality of pursuing self-interest through impersonal market exchange.

While it is hard to imagine a life of meaning and joy without mutual caring and sharing, we shouldn’t demand more of magnanimous morality than it can deliver. Calls for a more moral marketplace—sometimes referred to as capitalism with a human face—are invariably motivated by the hope of substituting the instinctive morality of the small group for the morality of impersonal markets. When such a substitution goes beyond feel-good rhetoric and is actually attempted, the result is less morality and prosperity as political power replaces voluntary exchange.

Good economists see nothing wrong with caring and sharing. But they also see the opportunity to supplement that morality by extending our ability to help far more people than we can personally care about. The primary advantage of markets is that they provide each of us with the information and motivation to share with literally millions of people, without caring for them.

Of course some will say, “Yes, people are helping each other, but they are doing so for the wrong reason by considering only what’s in it for them.” Such people may never be convinced that self-interest is a legitimate motivation. But one would like to ask them if, when enjoying a good cup of coffee, reading a thrilling mystery on their e-reader, or boarding an airplane to visit a sick friend, they are troubled by the thought that all the many people who made those things possible were motivated primarily by a desire to improve their own conditions and the conditions of the families they love. I doubt they are, and for their sake I hope they aren’t.

The healthiest and certainly the most compassionate way to think about markets is by recognizing that they allow us to provide better for the few we genuinely do care about by doing more to serve and share with the multitude of those we don’t. This suggests that a strong moral case can be made for the market by explaining why the noble desires inspired by magnanimous morality are more fully realized when the urge to substitute that morality for market morality is resisted.


July/August 2011



Dwight R. Lee is the O’Neil Professor of Global Markets and Freedom in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required
Sign me up for...


October 2014

Heavily-armed police and their supporters will tell you they need all those armored trucks and heavy guns. It's a dangerous job, not least because Americans have so many guns. But the numbers just support these claims: Policing is safer than ever--and it's safer than a lot of common jobs by comparison. Daniel Bier has the analysis. Plus, Iain Murray and Wendy McElroy look at how the Feds are recruiting more and more Americans to do their policework for them.
Download Free PDF