Morality and the Markets

Capitalism and ethics make uncomfortable bedfellows, thinks Giles Fraser.

In his fascinating introduction to the long-awaited St Paul's Institute report on morality and the City (PDF here), outgoing Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser tells a by-now familiar tale of how ethics in the financial markets were subverted by a combination of de-regulation and computerisation following the Big Bang of 1986. What was lost, he thinks, was the salutary effect of face-to-face communication that was basic to that prelapsarian world of old school ties, when an Englishman's word was his bond. He sounds positively misty-eyed about those far-off days:

The old City may have been an exclusive and inward looking club -- but the benefit of clubs is that members often have a better developed sense of values and are able to hold each other to account for failing to live up to the club's standards. As Albert Schweitzer put it: "Ethics is a state of solidarity with other human beings."

Put this another way: moral behaviour is bound up with empathy, and you're likely to feel more empathy with another person when you can see the whites of their eyes. No system of regulation can fully compensate for that. There's a truth in here, which is that human beings have a pronounced tendency to respond more warmly to people than to abstractions. Personal relationships engage the conscience, and also ancient and probably innate human instincts of loyalty and shame.

The moral Prime Directive underlying all this is that of reciprocity: as it is often expressed, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This sounds religious. It has been discovered and claimed as their own by all major world religions. But it is in fact pre-human, an evolved response to the problem of survival. Vampire bats are the standard example from nature. It is in the interest of bats to share the fruits of their bloodsucking with other, less advantaged bats, because the night may come when they themselves will have to rely on the generosity of a fellow bat. From such humble beginnings may derive our ethics and the most valuable insights of religion.

Yet human personal relationships have always been vulnerable to less wholesome passions: hatred, resentment, revenge, one-upmanship, herd mentality, contagious fear and intrigue. Giles Fraser admits that the pre-Big Bang City was not a paragon of virtue. He mentions the Guinness scandal as a case in point. His argument is that such problems are magnified when personal relationships are replaced by purely "transactional" ones, and the market itself becomes a source of virtue:

Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about 'housekeeping', has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making -- until the bluffs were all called at the same time.

But there's a paradox here. For whatever the virtues of personal relationships the great moral insight of the market economy derives from its very impersonality, which for the first time made possible a kind of objective ethics. And the market is reciprocity in action. As Adam Smith famously said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

The title of the St Paul's report, Value and values, is a reminder of how much of our moral vocabulary consists of metaphors derived from the marketplace. Value is a measure of what something is worth. And a "worthy" person is morally an upright one. If someone does you a favour you are in their debt, you owe them. And there's no such thing as a free lunch. Sooner or later will come payback time. You will be held to account for your actions. Respect, in life, has to be earned. Conversely, we believe that criminals should "pay" for their crimes, that betrayal is a sell-out and that politicians who lecture the rest of us while enjoying the privileges of office are morally bankrupt.

The moral language of the markets is as old as the Bible. The Old Testament reports that a king of Babylon was "weighed in the balance and found wanting", and tells us that the price of a virtuous woman is "far above rubies". In the "parable of the talents" (a talent being a large quantity of silver), Jesus speaks of spiritual capital as a sum of money with which you should speculate to accumulate. As for Muhammad, he worked for most of his life as a trader.

What all this suggests to me is that the trading relationship that developed in the first market economies enabled people to think about ethics and morality in new and interesting ways, and has thus been a source of moral progress.

Before the formalisation of relationships in the marketplace, there were "primitive", intuitive forms of social relationship: parent and child, sexual partnership, the wider kinship systems of the tribe, and the relationship of subordinate to superior in a dominance hierarchy. All such "natural" relationships are mediated by, and encourage, pre-moral forms of repriprocity: bribes, threats, genetic claims, feelings of social solidarity, etc.

Such relationships may contain the seeds of morality, but by themselves are not moral; in fact they can impede morality as we now understand it. We think it's wrong to bribe or threaten others or promote our relatives against better-qualified non-relatives, for example. For most of human history, and in some places even today, this would not have seemed obvious. That it seems obvious to us is one of the moral lessons of the market.

"Personal relationships good, impersonal market forces bad" is thus at best a simplification and probably highly misleading. A properly functioning market will expose and punish underhand behaviour. The main problem with today's financial markets is that they have become dysfunctional.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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