Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, edited by Paul J. Zak. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2008. Hardcover: ISBN 978 0 691 13522 9, $???. Paper: ISBN 978 0 691 13523 6, $???. Pages xli + 344.
This is an interesting and important collection of essays, indicating some important shifts of thinking and some of the positive benefits of work in "neuro-economics." The title of the volume has a double meaning: (1) that (some or all) markets are intrinsically and morally good, or (2) that despite the role of self-interest, market transactions are unavoidably infused with moral considerations. The comments on the back cover point to the latter meaning, redolent of Adam Smith in the Moral Sentiments. So I was disappointed to find that the editor and some of the contributors also entertain a crude version of the first.
At first I saw the writing of this review as an opportunity to appraise the importance of important developments in neuroscience and evolutionary ethics--a focus on the second meaning. But the ideological crudities are too prominent to avoid notice. I hope that this defect will not deter readers of this journal from appraising some of the more sophisticated insights therein.
The volume consists of 15 essays by leading authors such as Robert Boyd, Robert Frank, Herbert Gintis, Charles Handy, Elinor Ostrom, Peter Richerson, Vernon Smith, and Frans B. M. de Waal. This interdisciplinary list includes anthropologists and political scientists, as well as economists and others. The editor adds a chapter and an introduction.
Regrettably, the editor's introduction seems to narrow the potential audience for the book rather than to enlarge it. While it engagingly points to some of the important insights within the volume, the editor did not resist the temptation to peddle his simplistic pro-market philosophy. Zak argues that markets are superior to planning, not on the grounds of the more sophisticated epistemic critique of Friedrich Hayek and others, but because "we are not bees" (p. viii). Genetic variation means that people are diverse and markets are necessary.
Presumably, therefore, Zak would recommend that all inter-gender relations should be conducted on a market, including the sale of sexual services? Furthermore, his argument would suggest that the modern corporation is dysfunctional, because it unites a genetically diverse set of individuals in a non-market organization, planned by its directors and managers...