“I don’t have to tell you things are bad,” Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) announces in the warm-up to his famed populist outburst in Network (1976), inciting his millions of viewers to rush to their living room windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Beale ticks off a standard litany of 1970s-era social woes—inflation, unemployment, bank failures, violent crime—to stoke the audience of his nightly news broadcast. In the end, his undoing proves to be not hubris but civics. He tries to goad Americans into thinking critically about the ultimate source of their malaise: the economic arrangement of their daily affairs. Beale first denounces, and then embraces, the global market system, all to the detriment of his new calling as the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” Americans, it turns out, don’t want to be bothered with detailed jeremiads about the relative social costs of market sovereignty, and how effective social remedies may require a re-examination of the Republic’s guiding folklore of the free market. As Beale’s ratings tank, his bosses script a violent end for him—an on-air assassination carried out by an outfit called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. With Beale out of the picture, the network can pad its prime-time schedule with lesser, more lurid tabloid knockoffs of his doomsaying style.
It’s hard not to ponder Beale’s glum fate, fictional though it is, as an instructive counterweight to a pair of new books—each bearing the same subtitle—seeking to impose moral limits on the market’s sovereignty. While Beale is remembered for the “I’m as mad as hell” mantra, his more fitting epitaph is “I don’t have to tell you things are bad.” God knows we don’t need moral theorists to let us know that things are bad, with the long-term fallout of the 2008 financial crisis having left millions of Americans foreclosed on, debt-ridden, jobless and worse. In addition, as does Beale in the early phase of his prophetic career, both Debra Satz, who teaches ethics and philosophy at Stanford, and Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard best known for his communitarian critique of liberal social-contract theory, focus on the subjective discomfort and dismay of their presumed readers over the imperial expansion of the market into spheres heretofore designated as civic, personal or spiritual. And much as Beale proves to be, their books are at a loss to deliver an account of nonmarket moral principles that offer a serious challenge to the untrammeled reign of “rational choice” and “competitive advantage.”
In Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale, Satz acknowledges the universal sweep of market prerogative across the social realm and advances the crucial point that some of the market’s triumphs can disfigure or stunt the ability of its subjects to do much civic or moral thinking for themselves. Lest this latter notion strike readers as unduly radical, Satz emphasizes that it was forcefully argued by the intellectual hero of classical market economics: Adam Smith. Writing in The Wealth of Nations about the baleful impact of the industrial-age division of labor on a democratic citizenry, Smith observed that
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same…has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…. [He is incapable] of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging.
As Satz notes, this trenchant appraisal of a worker’s diminished social and intellectual life demonstrates Smith’s belief that “the parties to certain kinds of exchanges are themselves partially constituted in the market.” For political economists of Smith’s persuasion, the preferences and capacities of agents in the labor market are not permanent, objective features of economic life; rather, in the voguish terminology of today, they are socially constructed, arrangements we create and that in turn shape us. What’s more, Satz writes, “these preferences and capacities are relevant to our assessment of markets: labor markets can have troubling social, cultural, and political effects precisely by shaping preferences and capacities…. In the labor market workers make not only pins and widgets, but they also make aspects of themselves.”