Can the free market give you moral backbone?

The John Templeton Foundation recently sent me a collection of essays addressing the question: “Does the free market corrode moral character?” Lacking an agreed definition of the free market, a conception of good moral character, and above all a sense of how character is shaped, it is not surprising that the answers tended to wander off topic. The writer Kay Hymowitz fears that internet chatrooms facilitate paedophilia. The economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that globalisation makes the world a better place. However right he may be, that was not the question.

It is easy to point to systems that are far more injurious to moral character – not to mention prosperity, peace, the environment and human life itself – than the free market: German fascism, Stalinist communism. It is harder to reverse the exercise, although free markets do look corrosive when compared to some childlike state of grace.

I am not sure if it is the same question or not, but one might also ask: “Does the free market punish moral character?” On balance, the answer is no. Markets tend (but do not guarantee) to reward hard work, calculated risk-taking, applied creativity, amiability and honesty. Competition is the key here: it allows us to find alternatives to doing business with lazy, timorous, unimaginative, rude or dishonest people.

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.