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Resolving the Contradiction
A satisfactory moral vision for a free society cannot be a schizophrenic opposition of moral directives. Yet that’s where we’ve been led by our investigation of the moral implications of the economic theory of the free market. How can these conflicting directives—to constrain our pursuit of our own utility for the sake of the free market as a whole, but also to pursue our own utility egoistically—be reconciled into a consistent moral picture?
To investigate this problem, it will be useful to survey some attempts to provide some sort of morals for the free society.
Nozick (1974) speaks of the moral rules that bring the free market into existence as “side constraints.” The idea is that one maximally pursues one’s own goals in a state of unconcern for the goals others, while at the same time observing a set of extraneous, more or less absolute restrictions on one’s range of action. You pursue your own goals however possible, except that you aren’t allowed to kill or maim anyone, rob people, defraud them, etc. The constraints are called “rights,” and they are conceived as prohibitions on allowed action that stand completely outside the order of ends or utilities. According to Nozick, the source of rights is that “individuals are inviolable” (1974, 31). “Why?” asks the market egoist. “Why should I care about other individuals?” Nozick: “Because Kant.”
So there are rights, which appear as a set of rules separate from the rest of life, and there’s the rest of life, which can supply no intrinsic motivation to respect rights.
This is obviously no solution. It is just a reaffirmation of the very schizophrenia we want to escape. It sets rights and market behavior in opposition, the selfless versus the selfish, with the irony that the selfless observance of rights exists to create the selfish market. It invites people to think of the market as something that does not reward and even punishes rights-respecting behavior, and to think of rights-respecting behavior as something it’s better to get others to do while avoiding for themselves. In addition, it treats rights as the only source of moral constraint on the pursuit of one’s own goals. Now, perhaps the bare observance of rights is enough to secure “liberty.” But we have seen that a perfectly efficient market, which optimizes the outcomes of all, requires the elimination of all transactions costs and therefore requires adherence to mores of behavior, such as candor and fair-mindedness and forgivingness, that go well beyond the bare observance of rights.
- Nozick, Robert. 1974. <em>Anarchy, State, and Utopia</em>. Basic Books.