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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 1998

Taking on the Marketeers in a World of Gross Inequalities

By Harry Glasbeek

Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market as an Ethical System

John McMurtry, Toronto: Garamond Press, 1998; 400 pp; $24.95 ca
We live in an age of statistics. More often than not, they are depressing.

The annual United Nations Development Report, 1997, tells us the net worth of 10 billionaires is greater than the combined national income of the 48 poorest countries. This might not be so bad if the majority's share of the total wealth still gave them a decent standard of living. Even small slivers of a very large pie might be enough.

Regrettably, this is not so in our world. More than 1.3 billion people have to survive on $1 a day. Globally, three out of four persons in the poorest countries will not live to age 50. About 300 million people live in 16 countries where life expectancy decreased between 1975 and 1995.

Why doesn't most of the world's population stand up and scream "We are not going to take it any more!"? In Unequal Freedoms, John McMurtry gives us a way to understand why this is not happening.

Having read an early version of this work as an arm's length reviewer for the publisher, I supported its publication -- despite its then uncommercial length. I did so because it was different from a host of books spawned by the growing inequalities and our overall sense of impotence. The published version reinforces the recommendation I made to the publisher.

McMurtry sets out to explain why we feel so overwhelmed, why political parties of all stripes ignore our wishes for different policies and tell us our miserable circumstances are the best we have a right to expect. His starting point is that we have internalized the dictates of a system -- the market system, as if it were a religious belief that brooks no questioning.

Worse, he argues, we are so devoted that we accept without question the proposition that if we deviate from the religion's teachings and its mandated practices we should be punished for our immorality. Those of us who do not accept the need to maximize our resources or talents to serve our selfish needs are behaving immorally and will be denounced, and worse, discarded.

In an easy-to-follow style, McMurtry shows how we are asked to accept the teachings of the market evangelists in the same way as peoples have been asked to internalize world views over the ages.

McMurtry painstakingly uses his considerable philosophical skills to show how the claims that market principles are like natural laws -- immutable and, therefore, cannot be escaped -- are palpably wrong. Like a surgeon, armed with the latest laser techniques, the author takes apart the underlying justifications on which the marketeers rely.

The internal contradictions in the theories of Ricardo and Locke and the distortions of their views and those of Adam Smith by modern free market apostles are laid bare.

In one neat passage, McMurtry notes the same people who posit market precepts to be as transcendental as the laws of nature want to punish those who violate these market principles as if they were moral laws. Is the law of gravity regarded as a moral norm, asks McMurtry?

Or, the author asks, how is it that corporations, especially large ones, are seen by modern market gurus as a nice fit within the market paradigm when their very premisses -- collectives that shield individuals from responsibility for their conduct -- run counter to the supposed underpinnings of the market?

Layer after layer of the logic of the market is stripped away in this fashion. This is what makes the book an original contribution. This is not to say one cannot quibble with some of the work's assumptions. For instance, the author argues that market proponents are opposed to government regulation and redistribution of wealth.

While this is undoubtedly true of vulgar marketeers, theorists are more circumspect. Their claim is that regulation and interference with wealth ownership may differ because of the dominance of one set of political values over others, but that in any given political economic milieu the value-free market mechanism will ensure the most efficient use of talents and resources and, by that, generate the maximum welfare within that value-laden system.

To answer this argument it would have been necessary for McMurtry to show it is capitalism's use of the market machinery which lies at the heart of the problems he identifies. But, in his quest to show the hidden values of the market dogma, he does not do this directly. The potential significance of drawing an analytical distinction between capitalism and the market is not exploited.

However, in his concluding chapters, McMurtry draws heavily on the distinction between industrial and finance capital, focusing on the emerged dominance of the latter. This jibes with Marxist critiques of capitalism. But because he does not face the issue head-on, in his recommendations the author concentrates on curbing usury -- regulation of banks, taxing financial transactions, making positive use of pension funds -- rather than addressing the central problem of the work-for-wages construct that, in an earlier passage he had likened to slavery, an ugly outgrowth naturalized by market idolatry.

In the end, these reservations are not that important. The worth of the book is that McMurtry formulates a moral question. He asserts that any good society would set out to support life. This must be the moral criterion by which to judge political and economic decision-making. By support for life he means "clean air, food, water, shelter, affective interaction, environmental space, and accessible learning conditions" and for the expansion of their availability.

He contends that a worthwhile society is to provide the means to support "organic movement, sentience and feeling, and thought." So he rails -- analytically, passionately -- against the widely accepted idea that the market is an amoral mechanism, one with no axe to grind.

McMurtry is most persuasive in his assertion that, to the contrary, the market is a scheme based on moral absolutism, one that is totally opposed to life-supporting values: "Its objective is to net more money from money. Money is not used for life. Life is used for money."

This book covers a great deal of the terrain traveled by others troubled by our circumstance, in its provision of data, in its narration of the plotters and plotting behind the free trade deals and the machinations of the IMF and its ilk.

But, it also does something that none of them do. All others look for improvement within the overall scheme. McMurtry asks us to consider the tenets on which our social relations rest and furnishes a powerful argument for rejecting them altogether.

He explains the world and argues that we should change it. It is a passionate, occasionally angry, book, written with cold analytical precision. It is a book in the best tradition of political philosophy.

Harry Glasbeek is Professor Emeritus of Osgoode Hall Law School, York University.