Friday, July 10, 2009

Morals and Markets

I really am not trying to convert all atheists to be libertarian atheists, I promise - but I would like to point you to a piece in the Wall Street Journal by economist Tyler Cowen that surfaces an assumption that many of us atheists either have, or just never questioned. He was writing about the Pope's recent encyclical about global capitalism, which I referred to in my previous post. The most interesting part comes toward the end:

A truly revolutionary document would have dealt with the rise of China and India. Though Western society has experienced a widespread secularization, our versions of capitalism and democracy are still based squarely on Christian ideas, and I believe this marriage of liberalism and Christianity has been for the better. China and India, despite each having some number of Christians, have no realistic prospects for a comparable ideological accommodation between morals and markets, and so we are entering uncharted waters.

This superficially tracks more general Christian arguments that Enlightenment morality would never have appeared were it not for Christianity, though it bears keeping in mind when formulating your objections that Cowen is an atheist. For my part, I guess I've always assumed no conflict between morals and markets; that modern capitalism, as a product of the Enlightenment, is also a product of reason just as modern morality is. I don't even claim that other ways of allocating and growing wealth are necessarily irrational or immoral, just that they're not as good at it.

But Cowen implies the concordance of markets and morals is a special case of the way markets have fluorished in the Christian West. Do you think this is true? Will India and China experience a change in individual morality as their economies grow, or do you think the current arrangement of markets and morality in the West a local optimum - or a coincidence?

Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

My comment is that the guy you quoted is making a really, really stupid argument from ignorance. Stupid because a simple internet search would have yielded reams of information on Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucianist moral philosophy and ethnics.

Furthermore, it's flat out ignorant to act as if mercantilism and capitalism are something new in India and China. Sure, they lag in industrialism and also in the latest market innovations (although they're rapidly catching up). But contra the West, they have a much longer history of civilization and capitalism on a continuous basis--and they didn't outsource their banking for centuries to a repressed minority. 15th century Florence was the one playing catch-up. Have passed them on the race course, the West now wants to pretend that it was always out in front. Balderdash.

One last thing--modern capitalists look for transparent markets. The US developped one in reaction to the Great Crash, but has in recent decades lost its way. Great Britain has long had transparency and an abhorrence of corruption as a strong cultural value. However, in the Romance countries, "British" style transparency is a late-comer--which, however, is being embraced as a way to modernize markets, increase foreign investment, and trim waste.

India is reeling from a recent accounting scandal and there is a strong push to introduce greater transparency and accountability. Sadly, China, with its authoritarian government, is still a den of obfuscation. It has less to do with Chinese culture (the Han are adept business people) and more to do with the mode of government. They (the govt) lie to their people and the world on a daily basis. Investor beware.

Michael Caton said...

Responding to your last point first, I couldn't agree more - there is no greater enemy of the (smart, industrious, admirable, etc. etc.) Chinese people than the Chinese government. That's often discussed on my political blog ( I will say that I occasionally get the classic "if you're an atheist, why don't you move to China/North Korea/etc." Any country where argument from authority is the rule of the day, as opposed to individual reason and responsibility, is not a good place for a skeptic. Hence why, if given the choice, I would rather live in nominally Anglican UK instead of officially atheist China.

I hope you're correct that the history of markets and reason-based development has deep roots in Asia. East Asia in particular has avoided a Dark Age like the one Europe had (and I would argue the Middle East is currently having) because it never succumbed to self-sustaining politically virulent irrational philosophies. Whether this was due to decisions that were made in concert by East Asian central governments (i.e. Japanese emperor Kammu at the beginning of the Kyoto era moving from Nara to get away from the Buddhists), something different about the religions there, or something inherent to East Asian culture, I don't know. I do find it interesting that the otherwise ruthless Mongols were passively tolerant of the religions in their midst, i.e. they couldn't have cared less as long as tribute was paid and no one resisted. That is, until some of the hordes converted to Islam and Christianity.