How the Liberal Market Revolutionized our Understanding of Humanity

In The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society, Murray Jardine raises questions about the underlying anthropological assumptions of the market as it functions within liberal societies (I raise a slightly different set of questions about its anthropology of individual self-interest in this post). He observes how unusual the modern market is as a phenomenon within history. For instance, most human societies ‘are structured in such a way that people typically have much more substantial long-term obligations to each other, and agreements between two individuals are usually subject to the approval of other members of the community.’ Within contemporary liberal societies, however, the market model of pure individual choice, without enduring obligations to other persons and society becomes the norm for all social interactions. Jardine suggests that the market is increasingly serving as the model for institutions such as marriage, leading to a reinvention of the institution including, but by no means limited to, the permitting of same-sex marriage and easier divorce.

The market relationship is essential to the logic of liberalism on the subject of human society. For instance, if we look at John Locke’s political theory, it is the market relationship of the contract that lies at its base. Jardine suggests that early liberalism tends to embody a middle-class perspective on the world. ‘According to Locke, if one is rational, one will obey the Law of Nature, which means one will work productively; according to Smith, if one works productively, one will be successful in the market.’ This conviction can be illustrated by the manner in which blue-collar workers routinely have to clock in and out, are subject to far more surveillance than white-collar workers, and receive pay-checks at more regular intervals, as they are perceived to be less rational and responsible.

In premodern societies, people seldom worked anything like the hours that we do today, just enough to satisfy their basic needs, after which they devoted the rest of their time to other activities. In its reliance upon the market, liberalism embodies a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic. Work becomes the central human activity: we start to live to work, rather than working to live. While we might be able to satisfy our basic needs and wants for only half of a week’s work, within the society governed by the market if you work less you are eliminated by competitors who work harder. This sort of market-driven society devastates less productive workers, by intensifying the pressures that they face and driving them out of employment.

For Adam Smith, human beings have a ‘natural propensity’ to buy and sell, a propensity that is facilitated by the market. Jardine remarks:

Note that it is extremely important for Smith’s argument that people do have this natural propensity. If a liberal system is supposed to maximize individual freedom, and the market will be the central institution of liberal society, then if people don’t have a natural propensity to buy and sell, they must be forced to participate in the market, and the liberal system will actually be very unfree. The assumption that a liberal market system maximizes individual freedom is based on the more fundamental assumption that market activity is something people do freely, that is, naturally. But do people actually have this natural propensity?

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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2 Responses to How the Liberal Market Revolutionized our Understanding of Humanity

  1. John H says:

    The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

    The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

    The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

    It’s all in the Communist Manifesto, of course. Tsk! What do they teach these young people at school these days? 😉

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