Does the free market corrode moral character?

ReichJagdish Bhagwati, John Gray, Garry Kasparov, Qinglian He, Michael Walzer, Michael Novak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Kay S. Hymowitz, Tyler Cowen, Robert B. Reich, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, John C. Bogle, and Rick Santorum offer answers over at the Templeton Foundation. Robert B. Reich on why we don’t want to know the answer:

Most of us are consumers who try to get the best possible deals in the market. Most of us are also moral beings who try to do the right things in our communities and societies. Unfortunately, our market desires often conflict with our moral commitments. So how do we cope with this conflict? All too often, we avoid it. We would rather the decisions we make as consumers not reflect upon our moral characters. That way we don’t have to make uncomfortable choices between the products and services we want and the ideals to which we aspire.

For example, when the products we want can be made most cheaply overseas, the best deals we can get in the marketplace may come at the expense of our own neighbors’ jobs and wages. Great deals also frequently come at the expense of our Main Streets – the hubs of our communities – because we can get lower prices at big-box retailers on the outskirts of town. As moral actors, we care about the well-being of our neighbors and our communities. But as consumers we eagerly seek deals that may undermine the living standards of our neighbors and the neighborliness of our communities. How do we cope with this conflict? Usually by ignoring it.

Similarly, as moral beings we want to think of ourselves as stewards of the environment, intent on protecting future generations. But as consumers, we often disregard this moral aspiration. Many of us continue to buy cars that spew carbon into the air, and some of us spend lots of time flying from one location to another in jet airplanes that have an even greater carbon footprint. And we often buy low-priced items from poor nations in which environmental standards are lax and factories spill toxic chemicals into water supplies or pollutants into the air. How do we square our moral stand on the environment with our purchasing habits? Beyond buying the occasional “eco-friendly” product, we typically don’t even try.

Our market transactions have all sorts of moral consequences we’d rather not know about.