Markets and Morals

This is the third in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Joseph Stiglitz, a professor of economics at Columbia University and a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics.
The Resilience of Capitalism
May 1932
John Maynard Keynes

In the midst of the Great Depression, British economist John Maynard Keynes considered the prospects for capitalism’s survival.

Can we prevent an almost complete collapse of the financial structure of modern capitalism? With no financial leadership left in the world and profound intellectual error as to causes and cures prevailing in the responsible seats of power, one begins to wonder and to doubt …

We are now in the phase where the risk of carrying assets with borrowed money is so great that there is a competitive panic to get liquid. And each individual who succeeds in getting more liquid forces down the price of assets in the process of getting liquid, with the result that the margins of other individuals are impaired and their courage undermined …

The competitive struggle for liquidity has now extended beyond individuals and institutions to nations and to governments, each of which endeavors to make its internal balance sheet more liquid by restricting imports and stimulating exports by every possible means, the success of each one in this direction meaning the defeat of someone else …

We have here an extreme example of the disharmony of general and particular interest. Each nation, in an effort to improve its relative position, takes measures injurious to the absolute prosperity of its neighbors; and, since its example is not confined to itself, it suffers more from similar action by its neighbors than it gains by such action itself … An individual may be forced by his private circumstances to curtail his normal expenditure, and no one can blame him. But let no one suppose that he is performing a public duty in behaving in such a way. The modern capitalist is a fair-weather sailor. As soon as a storm rises, he abandons the duties of navigation and even sinks the boats which might carry him to safety by his haste to push his neighbor off and himself in …

Well, I have painted the prospect in the blackest colors. What is there to be said on the other side? What elements of hope can we discern in the surrounding gloom? And what useful action does it still lie in our power to take?

The outstanding ground for cheerfulness lies, I think, in this—that the system has shown already its capacity to stand an almost inconceivable strain. If anyone had prophesied to us a year or two ago the actual state of affairs which exists to-day, could we have believed that the world could continue to maintain even that degree of normality which we actually have? This remarkable capacity of the system to take punishment is the best reason for hoping that we still have time to rally the constructive forces of the world.
Volume 149, No. 5, pp. 521–526

Liberty, Happiness... and the Economy
June 1967
by John Kenneth Galbraith

At a time when Cold War tensions had rendered Americans suspicious of anything that smacked even vaguely of socialism, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith made a case for the value of a certain degree of centralized market oversight: “It is through the state that the society must assert the superior claims of aesthetic over economic goals and particularly of environment over cost.”

In the latter part of the last century and the early decades of this, no subject was more discussed than the future of capitalism. Economists, men of unspecific wisdom, political philosophers, knowledgeable ecclesiastics, and George Bernard Shaw all contributed their personal revelation. All agreed that the economic system was in a state of development and in time would transform itself into something hopefully better but certainly different …

The next step will be a general recognition of the convergent tendencies of modern industrial systems, even though differently billed as socialism or capitalism. And we must also assume that this is a good thing. In time it will dispose of the notion of inevitable conflict based on irreconcilable difference …

The two questions most asked about an economic system are whether it serves man’s physical needs and whether it is consistent with his liberty and general happiness. There is little doubt as to the ability of the modern industrial system to supply man with goods …

The prospect for liberty is far more interesting. It has always been imagined, especially by conservatives, that to associate all, or a large part, of economic activity with the state is to endanger freedom …

But the problem is not the freedom of the businessman. It can be laid down as a general rule that those who speak most of liberty least use what they have. The businessman who praises it most is a disciplined organization man. The retired general who now lectures on the threat of Communist regimentation was invariably a martinet who relished an existence in accordance with military regulations. The Secretary of State who speaks most feelingly of the free world most admires the fine conformity of his own thought.

The greater danger is in the subordination of belief to the needs of the modern industrial system. As this persuades us on the goods we buy, and as it persuades us on the public policies that are necessary for its planning, so it also accommodates us to its goals and values. These are that technology is always good; that economic growth is always good; that firms must always expand; that consumption of goods is the principal source of happiness; that idleness is wicked; and that nothing should interfere with the priority we accord to technology, growth, and increased consumption.

If we continue to believe that the goals of the modern industrial system and the public policies that serve these goals are coordinate with all of life, then all of our lives will be in the service of these goals. What is consistent with these ends we shall have or be allowed; all else will be off limits. Our wants will be managed in accordance with the needs of the industrial system; the state in civilian and military policy will be heavily influenced by industrial need; education will be adapted to similar need; the discipline required by the industrial system will be the conventional morality of the community. All other goals will be made to seem precious, unimportant, or antisocial. We will be the mentally indentured servants of the industrial system. This will be the benign servitude of the household retainer who is taught to love her master and mistress and believe that their interests are her own. But it is not exactly freedom.

If, on the other hand, the industrial system is seen to be only a part, and as we grow wealthier, a diminishing part, of life, there is much less occasion for concern. Aesthetic goals will have pride of place; those who serve them will not be subject to the goals of the industrial system; the industrial system itself will be subordinate to the claims of larger dimensions of life. Intellectual preparation will be for its own sake and not merely for the better service to the industrial system. Men will not be entrapped by the belief that apart from the production of goods and income by progressively more advanced technical methods there is nothing much in life …

The need is to subordinate economic to aesthetic goals—to sacrifice efficiency, including the efficiency of organization, to beauty. Nor must there be any nonsense about beauty paying in the long run. It need not pay …

It is through the state that the society must assert the superior claims of aesthetic over economic goals and particularly of environment over cost. It is to the state that we must look for freedom of individual choice as to toil; for a balance between liberal education and the technical training that primarily serves the industrial system; and it is for the state to reject images of international politics that underwrite technology but at the price of unacceptable danger. If the state is to serve these ends, the scientific and educational estate and the larger intellectual community must be aware of their power and their opportunity and they must use them. There is no one else.
Volume 219, No. 6, pp. 61–67

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