The Vital Difference Between a Market Economy and a Market Society

We need to step back and have a morally robust debate about where markets belong and where they don’t.  

It’s interesting why there hasn’t really been a debate about the role of markets in our society after the financial crisis.  It looked as though the moment was right to have such a debate; after all, there had been three decades of market faith some might even call it market triumphalism.  And then came the financial crash.  But there hasn’t really been a serious re-examination of the role of markets and money in our society. 


A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity.  A market society is different.  A market society is a place; it’s a way of life where market relations and market incentives and market values come to dominate all aspects of life.  And that’s my worry.  Without quite realizing it, over the past three decades, we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society, a society where just about everything is up for sale.  

And the central question of the book is, do we want to live that way?  And if not, how can we decide as a society where markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong?  And I think the only way we can determine that is by having a public debate about how to value the goods and social practices that we care about and that market values may crowd out as with the love of learning in the case of reading we just talked about.  We need to debate case by case. 

Take military service.  In Iraq and Afghanistan there were more paid military contractors than there were U.S. military troops.  Now, we never had a public debate about whether we wanted to outsource the fighting of war.  But we looked up and it had happened.  Market values had come to inform some of the most fateful decisions to do with war, we see it also in education, in health, in how we deal with the environment, in the way we conceive citizenship.  

So, what I’m suggesting is that we need to step back and have a morally robust debate about where markets belong and where they don’t.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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