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.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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