A Moral Economy | The Nation


A Moral Economy

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Envisioning a moral economy does not require any heroic assumptions about human nature; it does not assume that people are always cooperative and kind. On the contrary, it starts from the idea that the individual pursuit of self-interest has to be controlled or it will turn destructive. Market Fundamentalists are the utopians; they imagine that the market magically transforms everyone into angels who can be trusted to do the right thing. The moral-economy narrative recognizes that there is no "royal road," no magic formula, that will produce the desired combination of prosperity, order and justice. Rather, it is through the continuous exercise of democratic self-governance that we can reform our institutions to make both the economy and the government work better to achieve our shared objectives.

About the Author

Fred Block
Fred Block teaches sociology at the University of California, Davis, and is a senior fellow with the Longview Institute.

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By establishing this vision of a moral economy, we can tell a unified story of how our fellow citizens can prosper. But it is important to avoid those old assumptions that government is always good and corporations are necessarily evil. Our government consistently fails to help people with day-to-day problems of healthcare, education and childcare, or finding work that pays a decent wage. Reforming government so that it works effectively for people is a critical part of building a moral economy.

At the same time, shared prosperity depends on "enterprise"--collective projects of innovation carried out with boldness and energy. Entrepreneurial activity can and should occur throughout society--in the public sector, in the nonprofit sector, in small business, in large corporations and in a wide variety of collaborations among these sectors. A moral economy would unleash this capacity for shared problem-solving in ways that fit with the four principles laid out earlier. So while we expose corporations that cheat their employees or the public, we should reward those that channel their efforts into innovations. A reformed corporate sector is a critical building block of a moral economy.

With the construction of a moral economy as the frame, Reich's other stories fall into place. The "rot at the top" has never smelled so putrid; the decay comes from the obscenely wealthy who have abandoned real enterprise for paper manipulations that generate outlandish returns. The "mob at the gates" continues to be those committed to jihad against the West. But the Bush Administration's response to this threat has been completely self-defeating. We need, instead, greater international cooperation to combat terrorism and concerted efforts to build a moral economy at the global level. Creating a world in which children born in the slums of Cairo, Islamabad and Lagos have real opportunities for meaningful employment and political participation is the only way to isolate the jihadists.

The triumphant individuals in this narrative are people of different ethnicities, immigrants and native born, both women and men, gay and straight, rural, suburban and urban, for whom the doors of opportunity would be reopened by the project of building a moral economy. With such an economy, our nation would become a "benevolent community" in which each individual is able to reach his or her full potential.

To be sure, stories are not enough. We also need bold policy ideas that would implement the principles of a moral economy. But the stories have to come first, and those stories must connect us to our nation's richest traditions. The great popular movements of our nation's history--against the slave trade, for the abolition of slavery, for women's suffrage, for trade union rights, for restraints on the power of big business in the Progressive Era, and extending to the civil rights movement, the New Left and the environmental movement--can all be understood as efforts to align our economic and political institutions with our deepest moral commitments. We will be honoring their legacy when we present a vision of a moral economy as an alternative to the failed claims of Market Fundamentalism.

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