From a recent article in The Freeman:
Pure markets enhance good behavior, because in such arrangements, voluntary acts are rewarded and involuntary acts are punished. A pure market, as we define it, consists only of voluntary human action. That’s because a truly free market includes governance structures that penalize coercive harm, and such pure markets do not impose any restrictions or costs on honest and peaceful human activity.
Critics of markets think otherwise. They point to slave markets or a market for stolen goods as examples of market immorality.
More recently, Professor Dr. Armin Falk (University of Bonn) and Professor Dr. Nora Szech (University of Bamberg) conducted experiments in which people were offered a choice between receiving 10 euros versus letting a laboratory mouse get killed. If a subject decided to save a mouse, the experimenters bought the animal, according to the study authors writing in the journal Science.
But in the experimental market with buyers and sellers, more people were willing to accept the killing of a mouse than when individuals were simply offered an isolated choice. Therefore, the researchers concluded, markets erode moral values. Guilt is shared with other traders who are also involved in transactions that kill mice. If a person refused a transaction to save a mouse, somebody else would step in, so the mouse would be killed anyway.
Do Falk and Szech’s analysis prove that markets erode morals?
The author of The Freeman article makes several good points, among which he points out briefly that it is not universally agreed that allowing a mouse to be killed is immoral. As far as the study he is talking about here is concerned, the rebuttal can end with that point. Mice have no moral standing. You can’t murder a mouse. The fact that professors Falk and Szech do not understand that simply demonstrates their moral ineptitude. And the fact that they appeal to something many people will incorrectly accept as immoral points to another level of problems with this study.
Because here is something that is immoral: the attempt to claim that something is immoral which is not, with a view to controlling other people’s behavior with false “morality.” What Falk and Szech are attempting to do can be illustrated in a more “down home” fashion. Perhaps I don’t like the fact that my neighbor sits on his front porch and reads his morning paper. So I travel around the neighborhood telling people that every morning my neighbor is doing something horribly immoral on his front porch – that something being reading the paper – in the hope that I can get them to join me in imposing my will on my paper-reading neighbor. Since reading the paper is not immoral, I am simply lying about my neighbor in an attempt to have control over his life.
Control over people freely trading with one another is exactly what studies like that done by Falk and Szech are after. They are not just descriptive, no matter how much they pretend to be. They are covert attempts to limit freedom. And they are attempts based on falsehoods. Falsehoods such as the claim that allowing a mouse to be killed is immoral.