Can We Have a Moral Economy?

January 29, 2017
Mollie March-Steinman

As our cherished social programs fall into deeper peril, we must work harder than ever to transform Economics into a values-based field.

In my college courses, I have noticed that economics is framed inconsistently across academic fields. For example, a Social Work or Sustainability class will present the issue of poverty differently from a traditional Economics class. In my Social Work class, the mission of the field is clearly defined as “caring, curing, and changing society.” The founding principles of the profession are based on generosity, kindness, and stewardship. Social Work assumes that society has a moral obligation to help those in need.

My Economics classes have made clear that the field operates on other assumptions: consumers maximize utility and producers maximize profit. By operating on these assumptions, the field of Economics frames poverty and wealth as neutral outcomes of a “natural” free market system. There is no moral undertone when speaking about unemployment, no mention of greed when speaking about profit maximization. Pollution is labeled a “negative externality”, monopolies are harmful because they are not “socially optimal”, and hurt the consumer, and we refer to the financial crisis of 2008 as an example of “market failure.”

Using such mechanical language to describe issues with human consequences damages the moral fabric of our society. It suggests that poverty is the result of an organic structure, when it is in fact very intentional. The market system is comprised of policies and outcomes that are created and maintained by human beings. There are no “natural” forces that create poverty and wealth. It is a complex web of incentives, benefits, rewards and penalties that are unevenly distributed, and often determined by the individuals that benefit most.

This is because our economic system, in the United States, is a classist system. We speak about so many things in terms of profit-motives, instead of ethical motives. Laissez-faire Capitalism is rooted in the assumption that by pursuing our own self-interest, we unintentionally better society, despite our selfish objectives. This assumption creates a culture of celebrating the rich (the “job creators”) and blaming the poor (the “lazy moochers”) instead of critically evaluating our economic system as a whole.

I decided to self-design an Economic Justice major to explore an ethical philosophy—that all humans deserve to lead dignified, healthy lives. Economic justice is a way of thinking holistically about our economic system, and encourages the development of fair institutions. During the next four years, we should strive to transform American culture by normalizing economic justice principles and pushing the field of mainstream economics to take an ethically-oriented approach.

Mollie March-Steinman is currently self-designing an Economic Justice major at Chatham University. She is passionate about promoting peace and justice for all. Mollie is an intern with the NewPeople Editorial Collective.


2 replies »

  1. Mollie,
    You are so right about a moral economy. In addition to all you have presented, as clinical social worker, and a fellow human, I witness and experience the tremendous emotional toll our unjust society and economy exacts. This includes when we harden our hearts to others’ suffering. Our hearts are then diminished in how we treat even those close to us and to ourselves.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment Bob! And thank you for your service as a social worker. I really hope that we can one day create a more compassionate society.

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