Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Can An Economy Ever be Moral?

Some light reading via Christopher Lind for the middle of the week. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.
When I ask people what can be done to make the economy more moral, they typically respond with ideas for personal reform. Banks should have Codes of Ethics so employees are forced to be honest. Oil companies should have training programs for their executives so employees don’t lie, and so on.
These are good responses as far as they go, but that isn’t far. You see, I actually think big business can be moral but all of us are caught up in social systems that are far larger and more influential than our personal relationships. Strong personal ethics are necessary for a moral economy but they are not sufficient. A moral economy also requires a social ethic. What goes into a social ethic? There are many principles but one of them would be mercy.
Bankruptcy is an example of the principle of mercy applied to modern economies. Bankruptcy is a declaration that the commercial enterprise is broken and cannot be fixed. So, the principle of mercy is applied. The remaining assets are divided among the creditors according to certain criteria and the enterprise is over. The parties are now free to restart this or another enterprise. This principle of mercy applies both to personal bankruptcy and to corporate bankruptcy.
Sometimes bankruptcy is thought to contradict the principle of responsibility. We all agree that in general, people who borrow money should pay it back, whether they are individual homeowners or big corporations. In practice though, the larger the corporation the more likely it is to be rescued by governments. This is especially so if the corporation is so interconnected to other corporations that its failure threatens the whole lot.
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