The Public Interest

Economics is not enough - Notes on the anticapitalist spirit

Ernest Van Den Haag

Fall 1976

ACCORDING to Friedrieh yon Hayek (and others), “it is meaningless to describe the manner in which the market distributes the good things of this world among particular people as just or unjust.” He is quite right. Justice is as irrelevant to the functioning of the market, to economic efficiency, and to the science of economics, as it is to a computer or to the science of meteorology. But it is not irrelevant to our attitude toward these things. People will tolerate a social or economic system, however efficient, only if they perceive it as just. Even if everybody were better off in a market system than in any other, people might resent the resulting inequality of benefits sufficiently to become hostile to it. Only if that inequality could be morally justified would it appear to be acceptable-or if, as in former times, the market were accepted as a divine or natural creation that “it is meaningless to describe as just or unjust.” But we no longer so regard the market.  It has been secularized. The various moral justifications available in the past melted away when the traditional beliefs and customs on which they rested were eroded by the market forces themselves and the kind of free, secular society they created. No new moral justification has replaced the traditional ones: The market has not been able to come up with anything since the decline of the bourgeois ethos that linked economic reward and moral virtue. On the contrary, the rational temperament of the market destroys supportive social mythologies as an acid may eat away the material needed to contain and confine it.

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