We seem to have immense faith in markets. We even commonly describe them as ‘free’ markets, implying that markets, and the overall idea of market, are essential to human freedom. We debate how far to allow ‘the market’ to manage provision in our health and education systems. We think that the market will achieve the best allocation of resources, through its signals of price and profit. After all, customers in a free market can vote with their feet, not only for consumer products, but also for public services. We even allow ‘bond markets’ to decide whether they like and will support government economic policy.
Buying and selling has been fundamental to human life for a very long time, and markets are the place and the means for this trade. There is a sense in which such markets are ‘free’, since no authority constrains their operation. For the working of the whole economy, a market economy appears to be freer than a planned economy, which failed to deliver in communist regimes.
However, like all institutions, markets can end up dictating outcomes to human society which created markets in the first place. The tail is wagging the dog. What right have bond traders to determine our overall social economic policy? Does everyone feel free in the market, or is it the case that many people feel that their options of how they can live their lives are very restricted by the market? Even enthusiastic supporters of the market acknowledge that it can become inefficient and even simply wrong, where monopolies or oligopolies arise to resist competitive pricing and quality, or where there are information failures, or where external effects like pollution are ignored.
The big question though is whether we really want to hand over decisions on our economic life to the abstract market mechanism which lacks both intelligence and moral value? Do we want to trade all things for price and profit, or are there some things which we would want to determine for ourselves outside of the market mechanism, like love, friendship, education, health…?? And if the market outcome is high unemployment, high inequality, environmental damage, low real wages, banks and consumers over-leveraged with debt, do we have to accept these results, do we have to believe that only the market can correct them itself, or can we take determined action ourselves to render these outcomes as we want them?
There is a moderated view of market, ie that it’s great within limits but should not be allowed to over-step those limits. Christian religion has a contribution here. In the second chapter of John’s gospel in the Bible, there is a story about Christ driving the market out of the temple. It reads, ‘In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at table exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle ; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said ‘Get these out of here! How dare you turn my father’s house into a market!’’
This story gets little notice. The church ignores it because it is stuck with its insistence on doctrinal or literal interpretations which the story does not fit. Secular atheism is usually unaware of the story because it rarely accesses the Bible text. But the story is an example of how religion interpreted as myth can offer meaning to secular society. It challenges us to consider whether the market has become too pervasive in human life, whether there are some areas of our life (the ‘temple’) which we would better reserve as ‘holy’ from market phenomena? How dare we turn each and every aspect of human life into a market?