The Common Good
June 2004

Can't Buy Me Love

by E.J. Dionne Jr. | June 2004

Why the language of the marketplace shouldn't rule our moral and political thinking.

It is hard to express your own beliefs if you are forced to speak in the tongue of your opponents.

It is hard to express your own beliefs if you are forced to speak in the tongue of your opponents. Arguments are lost before they begin because the terms of debate are skewed in advance. That is the position in which Democrats, liberals, and even moderates now find themselves.

One telltale sign of the shift is the extent to which the language of the economic marketplace now dominates the political discussion. We are at a point where any action that might seem good or wise on other grounds must nonetheless be defended in the market’s terms. The tongue-in-cheek comment of Anne Lewis, a veteran of Democratic campaigns and administrations, is exceptionally revealing: "We used to call for immunizing little children against disease. Now we call it an investment in human capital."

Distorting language in this way concedes what should not be conceded: that the market represents the one and only proper measure of a public action. As columnist and economics writer Robert Kuttner has argued, the idea that everything should not be for sale reflects a deep popular wisdom. Immunizing little children would be a good idea whether a market analysis justified its economic value or not. We don’t measure the moral rights of children on the same basis as we might calculate the value of a stock or the purchase price of a car.

We could all catalogue areas where the moral sense drives us to resist the calculus of the marketplace. Where public policy is concerned, consider the imperatives of strengthening family life, educating the next generation, and reducing suffering and need among the elderly, the sick, and others who are vulnerable. All are things worth doing whether or not some economist tells us they’ll pay off. We do them because our consciences tell us they are right. Allowing narrow economic arguments an unassailable place in the political realm undermines moral claims rooted in any aspirations that defy economic calculation.

THESE SHIFTS in language are self-reinforcing. Appeals to moral arguments are made to seem "soft" when compared with the supposedly hardheaded assessments of the market. As a result, advocates of a particular moral course gradually stop making moral arguments at all. Or they make them apologetically. "Well, uh, yes, I think it’s right to help the poor, but forget that; just think of all that lost productivity if we don’t help the poor get more skills." Consider the concession that has just been made: If it could be shown with reasonable certainty that helping the poor does little for productivity—or promotes productivity less than, say, doubling education spending on rich kids—the case is lost.

It turns out that it’s not "softheaded" to make moral arguments. What is soft—and also timid and ineffectual—is to be so fearful of looking soft as to abandon the strongest arguments one can make and instead make whatever claims are in fashion at any given time. This has happened again and again. As liberals and progressives lost faith in their own moral compass, they turned to the lodestar of their opponents.

The reluctance of liberals and progressives to make arguments on straightforwardly moral grounds has the corrosive effect of ceding all moral argument to the right. Liberals and Democrats, center and left, are unwilling to turn to the traditional sources of moral guidance—including religious traditions. By default, they leave the impression that tradition and religion always point rightward. The public domain of "moral" talk is narrowed, usually to the personal and the sexual. But morality speaks to the social as well as the personal. The social, in turn, affects the personal.

Lectures about "family values" can be valuable; sometimes they’re even necessary. But support for families, especially in a society in which so many mothers and fathers both work outside the home, requires more than talk. How society organizes pay, leave time, health care, and child care powerfully affects the ability of families to cope and stay together. These questions implicate morality no less than do discussions of sex, adultery, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. Yet if someone says that he or she is going to talk about "morality," most people these days are certain they’re about to hear a commentary on sex. The practical questions that face parents, spouses, and children every day about work, the quality of the schools, and putting food on the table are every bit as "moral." But we rarely think of them that way.

THE ENERGY AND commitment of progressive religious people rarely receive the attention they deserve. When the institutions of the mass media bring on "religious voices," their reflex is to talk with representatives of the Religious Right. The assumption is that religion lives on the right. This ignores the majority of religious people who are moderate or liberal in their political views. The African-American church is rarely dealt with as a spiritual entity. African-American preachers are typically dealt with as "civil rights leaders," which leaves aside the fact that their views on social and racial justice are rooted in the scriptures and in commitments that are just as "religious" and "moral" as the views of conservative religious leaders.

The problem here can certainly be blamed on the existence of media stereotypes. But these media stereotypes also point to weaknesses in liberalism and in the Democratic Party. The assumption that religion lives on the right cuts progressives off from many of their most vital traditions: the anti-slavery and civil rights movements; the turn-of-the-century settlement houses; the neighborhood-based community organizing that so often grew out of the churches; and more than a century’s worth of social justice activism on the part of priests, rabbis, ministers, nuns, and imams. The fear of moral talk among liberals and Democrats and their acquiescence to the language of materialism and the market are an implicit, if unintended, concession that the progressive agenda lacks a moral core and a moral basis.

Even to make arguments critical of the market of the sort I just offered is seen as risky. After all, has not the market proven itself to be an efficient creator of wealth and a shrewd allocator of resources? Doesn’t the death of communism prove that capitalism is the only system that works?

The paradox is that it’s precisely because the market has triumphed that it is now in such need of serious criticism. Because no one with any likelihood of taking power wants to upend capitalism, criticisms of the system are as safe as ever—and also more urgent. What needs to be opposed is not the market itself, but claims that the market can do things that it can’t.

As the thoughtful moderate writer Matthew Miller has pointed out, even though the economy grew by 40 percent in the decade between 1992 and 2002, the persistence of deep social problems proved that economic growth is not an elixir. "How can it be," Miller went on, "when even after this boom, we have 40 million people without health insurance, 15 million family members of full-time workers in poverty, and schools that are as desperate as ever?"

WHY CAN’T THE MARKET alone solve the problems that it leaves behind? It can be assumed that if there is money to be made solving any given problem, the market will solve it. No one is talking about the "problem" of a shortage of automobiles or software or hotel rooms.

But if there is no reasonable expectation of profit to be earned from selling health insurance to poor Americans who cannot afford the premiums, market participants will move on to areas where they can make money—for example, by selling health insurance to the healthy and the wealthy. To deny this is to deny the very genius of capitalism: It is very good at measuring the potential for profit. It is absurd to ask capitalism to do things that it can’t—a conclusion most democratic countries, including our own, reached long ago.

I stress the importance of the dominance of market language because market talk increasingly crowds out so many other kinds of talk. Allowing market logic to penetrate all corners of the political debate leaves those who would challenge the status quo at an overwhelming disadvantage. An alternative language and logic would insist that markets are valuable but insufficient, that market values are not the only values. This alternative would assert that free societies, including free markets, thrive only when they are supported by strong communities and vibrant public institutions.

Surely that is one of the lessons of the recent financial scandals. Even the market depends on the idea that there is such a thing as the public good. Markets require the enforcement of honesty and openness—or, in the currently popular word, transparency. Ultimately, as philosopher Francis Fukuyama has argued, they depend upon trust, upon "the social virtues" behind "the creation of prosperity." And trust is built only when actors in the marketplace know they are dealing with others whose values include virtues that existed long before capitalism became dominant. These include simple but essential virtues such as honesty, decency, and a concern for one’s good

name.

ONE OF THE STRIKING aspects of Bush-era conservatism, as William Greider has noted, is the extent to which it is an effort to move backward. It is an attempt to weaken or obliterate the legacies of the Fair Deal, the New Deal, and the Progressive Era and take the country to something closer to the unconstrained capitalism of the late 19th century.

The era that’s ending—or should—saw regulators as nothing but meddlers getting in the way of genius. But capitalism cannot work without regulation, which is simply a fancy word for rules and laws. Powerful people will often take advantage of their muscle unless someone—like it or not, that someone usually works for the government—keeps an eye on them.

Let’s pick an extreme example of why the "self-regulating" capacity of the market is insufficient. Imagine that many people die because a fast-food chain sells tainted hamburgers. Word would, indeed, get out. Customers would stop eating the hamburgers. The market would eventually pummel the company’s stock.

But if the market "worked" in this little tale, it surely didn’t work for the people who ate the bad burgers. Does anyone think that the market’s "genius" in eventually punishing the company means we can repeal the Pure Food and Drug Act? Are not both entrepreneurs and consumers better off because they can rely on the rules to guarantee that the hamburger the chain buys is safe? And when problems arise—E coli, mad cow disease—isn’t the market rendered more efficient when regulators act with dispatch to restore the supply of safe meat?

In Enron’s case, its fall simply cannot be used to prove that the market worked when so much avoidable damage was done before the market acted. For a very long time, we’ve assumed that the fundamental conflict in capitalism was between owners and workers. Enron proves that the real conflict is between insiders and outsiders. The losers in the Enron case were stockholders and employees. This suggests a new form of politics both inside corporations and in the country as a whole.

"It used to be said that because so many people had 401(k)s, you couldn’t do class politics anymore," says David Dreyer, a former Treasury Department official and Democratic activist. "Now, with Enron, because so many people have 401(k)s, you can do class politics."

This new class politics between insiders and outsiders is good for capitalism. It insists that corruption and insiderism distort both the market and politics. It asserts, in historian Richard Hofstadter’s terms, that when democratic and deliberative politics are overwhelmed by powerful economic actors, we are in danger of forgetting the value of prudent rules enforced by an honest government.

IN THE MODERN corporation, enormous power has been vested in top executives. These insiders, when supported by pliant boards of directors, can reap benefits through staggering salaries and extravagant stock option plans. After Enron, it can never again be taken for granted that big benefits for people at the top of companies are consistently in the interest of shareholders. Enron’s manic efforts to hide losses to keep pushing up stock prices were harmful to the interests of everyone except the insiders. Might this mean that the era of the swaggering capitalist is over?

The biggest signal of a change in the culture is the extent to which capitalism’s strongest defenders have begun to express doubts about how the current corporate system works. Few publications are more committed to capitalism than the London-based Economist. Yet in fall 2003, it ran a cover story on "The Problem with Executive Pay."

"For many," the magazine maintained, "top bosses are not the toughest or most talented people in business, just the greediest." This decidedly non-Marxist publication continued: "What is now causing the most indignation, in Europe as well as in America, are ‘golden parachutes’ and other payments which reward bosses even when they fail."

If such friends of the market as the editors of The Economist are willing to challenge its failures and excesses, surely Democrats (and Republicans who claim to be progressive) should lose some of their fear. They might then stop capitulating to a language and a logic in which they do not really believe.

Consider what was the country’s first response to the corporate scandals. It was the response of both parties: They turned to government. Congress enacted new rules to prevent abuses. State regulators such as New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer stepped in to enforce the old rules. Big government is said to be terrible for capitalism—until the moment when government is called in to save it.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. This article is excerpted with permission from the forthcoming Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge (Simon & Schuster, June 2004).

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