The Market As God: A Debate

Last Thursday, April 11th, four prominent Harvard professors debated the role of “the market” in law, science, economics and religion. The session started with a powerful video about the emerging black market for human organs.

With the demand for organs escalating faster than the supply, some individuals have begun selling their kidneys to those willing to pay for organ transplants and unwilling to follow the rules of organ donation (specifically that the available organ goes to the recipient in closest proximity, not in the most dire need). The video poses the questions, “Will the rich use the poor as warehouses?” Will organ theft become prevalent?

The Theologian
Harvey Cox, a theologian from the Harvard Divinity School, argued that while Martin Luther preached, “That in which we put our highest trust is our God,” in our society, “That in which we put our highest trust is the market.” “The market knows best,” we say. “The market disciplines us for our own good.” The market has the power to turn things into something they aren’t, for example, the body becomes “an assembly of saleable organs.”

Cox cited the trend in applying economic theory to all realms of life from dating to family life, and from the dining room and the bedroom. Cox exclaimed, “Enough already!” The logical contradiction is that God views human beings as finite, but the logic of the market God is infinite on a finite planet, with infinite growth. But, as Cox says, “The market is not God but a human institution.”

The Scientist
Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard psychology professor and Neurology psychologist at Mass General, used the charming analogy of the use of toilet paper to explain the role of market forces. For example, he said, the French didn’t always use our toilet paper, but switched to it after trying it. His point? “Relative to the task, some outcomes are objectively ‘better’ for human beings.”

Kosslyn asserts that human nature is not just about the body, but also about perception. We use external devices (like the notepad for math calculations) or use other people to extend the capacities of our brains. He also argued that genes are regulated by interaction and environment, and that different “selves” are elicited from different situations. Finally, he espoused the notion of “right actions” as being relative to a task and evaluated relative to a task.

The Lawyer
Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law professor and lawyer to the troubled stars (O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Mike Milken), theorized that there were two sources of authority: Revelation & Discovery (which comes from outside of human behavior), and Invention (which comes from human expertise).

However, authority and morality are just invented by human beings, and human beings are neutral. As such, he claims, there is no inherent right or wrong in selling organs. Rather, experience teaches us what is right and wrong over time. He dubs this, “The Total Unmarket.”

Dershowitz left the audience with four proposals to digest:
1. Organ donation is moral.
2. Refusal to donate an organ is immoral.
3. Organ donation is optional, but if you don’t give an organ, you can’t get an organ.
4. You must donate organs by law.

The Politician
Professor Dutch Leonard of the Kennedy School claimed he was at the presentation “to defend markets” due to his faith in economics. Today, he asserts, the fundamental idea is that we put individuals at the center of our attention with respect to markets, therefore individuals are well-off when they think they are well-off.

Leonard outlined five preconditions for Pareto-efficient markets:
1. Informed, independent consumers.
2. No external costs or benefits.
3. Competition among suppliers.
4. Rational firms and consumers.
5. Just endowments (starting positions of income and wealth).

In order to achieve these conditions, we need a context that regulates the total market with external authority. We also need, he claims, “democratic political institutions that are responsive, transparent, accountable, efficient, and that protect minority rights, guarantee civil liberties, and provide just distribution of political influences.” If we care about markets, then we must be advocates for effective democratic society.

Leonard points out that many negative outcomes attributed to markets are “really failures of underlying political institutions to create a legitimate effective, regulatory regime, and a just distribution of wealth and opportunities.”

He concluded by reminding us to always question if making something a law made it “better,” and if so, “compared to what?” Making something illegal doesn’t make it go away.

Conclusion? When you put a theologian, a scientist, a lawyer and a politician in Spangler, you get a lot of opinions, a lot of facts, and a lot of food for thought.