Market Economy, Market Society and Economocentrism

In the video above Michael Sandel makes some poignant and insightful comments about how, over the last thirty years, within the post-industrial world, market thinking has begun to enter arenas that have traditionally operated according to non-market norms. Sandel laments this fact as he thinks this entry of market thinking into traditionally non-market oriented social practises has a tendency to corrupt certain social practises by crowding out intrinsic motivation. For example, he points out that some schools have started to pay students to read and this is troubling as it encourages students to read for money, rather than to read for the sheer enjoyment of it, or to learn as much as they can. I am largely in agreement with Sandel that the entry of market thinking into spheres such as education, love, and friendship is deeply problematic.

Furthermore, Sandel characterizes the shift that I have described above as a shift from a market economy to a market society. A market society uses markets as the predominant tool to generate economic growth, whereas a market society tends to see that everything operates according to market principles. Sandel may be right that the scope of market thinking has greatly expanded over the last thirty years in the post-industrial world, however, he seems to fail to adequately address the question of why there is such a tendency for the market to expand into arenas that have traditionally operated under non-market principles. I will argue that once we have a market economy and economocentrism there is a tendency towards for market logic to spread to all spheres of life.

Post –industrial societies tend to be intensely focused on economic growth. Within these societies aside from individual rights and equality, one of the things you cannot question in public life is the need to constantly increase economic growth. In this sense, post-industrial societies are economocentric. That is they are centred around economic growth and work, rather than some other value. Furthermore, for many post-industrial societies economocentrism is nothing particularly new. While writing in the 19th century Tocqueville noticed how dominant the focus on work and the economy was in the American mind. He notes that Americans tend to have little regard for those  who live the life of leisure and view the life of productivity and work as having a great deal of dignity. In this sense, 19th century America already was economocentric.                                                                                                                                                

Now within societies with market economies the focus on economic growth tends to encourage people to want to maximize the efficiency of practises that have not traditionally operated through the use of market incentives by applying market mechanisms to these practises. The idea being that just as market forces have spurred on technological innovation and material improvement in particular areas that now operate according to market mechanisms, so too will market forces be able to increase the efficiency of practises that have not traditionally operated according to market principles such as educational or healthcare practises. Consequently, we see the push to pay people to read as this would efficiently maximize the good of people reading.  As a result, within a society that has a market economy and is economocentric there is a natural tendency for the logic of the market to be applied to all arenas of social life.

 To put this slightly differently,  within a society that is economocentric and has a market economy, our desire to maximize the things we value leads us to use the tool at hand (market mechanisms) to maximize every good that exists, even if the use of markets to maximize that good compromises the meaning of the good in question.  In this sense the trouble with a market economy paired with economocentrism is that we are ever focused on economic growth and are always thinking in terms of market mechanisms, and thus we tend to lose our ability to think in terms of other forms of valuation and lose sight of the complex nature of non-market values like love, friendship and education. As we lose our ability to think in terms of other forms of valuation and lose sight of the complexity of non-market values we begin to apply market rationality to all spheres of life.

I  am not suggesting that people within post-industrial societies are generally unable to reflect and understand non-market values and non-market practises, but rather that in terms of pre-reflective everyday thinking, living within an economocentric market economy will tend to make us think in terms of market valuation and market mechanisms.  People are perfectly capable of understanding non-market values and appreciate practises that operate according to non-market norms when they live within a society that is economocentric and has a market economy, but if they do not reflect in such a situation they will begin to understand all values in terms of markets, and thus fail to appreciate non-market values.

Sandel is right to call attention to the way that market norms have spread to all spheres of life, but it is important to also notice that the very structure of the public culture in which we live tends to reinforce the spread of market mechanisms to all social arenas. This encroachment of market mechanisms into all spheres of life was not something that was simply imposed on us by elites, it is something that our own thinking and culture legitimates and reinforces.  Thus, if the culture of postindustrial societies continues on the path it is currently on the marketization of social practises will tend to continue.



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