What would a market for values achieve?

A market for values would reconcile economics and ethics, individual and community, capitalism and democracy

In contemporary capitalism, based on the satisfaction of individual preferences, relativism of values is widely accepted. This paradigm has pros and cons. Indeed, a pluralist and democratic public discourse requires an agreement on preconditions such as respect for factual truth. And yet, most statements are based on some notions of good and bad. Therefore, in a world where markets rule our lives – as denounced by philosopher Michael Sandel – the impossibility to exchange values has relevant implications. The unwillingness or inability to modify one’s worldview when confronted with the experiences of others leads to extreme political polarisation, economic inequality, lack of social cohesion. What if we changed this reality?

How a market for values would function

Let’s imagine that in Country A strong economic growth coexists with cultural tensions and poor respect for the environment. Let’s also imagine that in another Country B society features lively debates on issues such as migration and climate change; but productivity is low and foreign investments scarce.

Currently, the two countries may exchange goods and services: Country A may transfer to Country B its technology and other productive inputs; and Country B may for instance sell to Country A books, records and other cultural products.

What if, beyond objects, the two countries were also able to exchange values? For instance, local communities in A may describe the economic benefits they have experienced thanks to partnerships between universities and companies and to attracting researchers from abroad. They may describe these experiences in some documents, referred to the value “competitiveness”, and transfer them to B. Local communities in B would be inspired by choices made in A, and at the same time would be able to add to the documents their own experiences, chosen from a wider list. Then they may transfer the documents to counterparts in other countries.

Similarly, local communities in B may describe in some documents the benefits – for instance in terms of social cohesion and lower crime rates – of initiatives such as art exhibitions narrating the histories of refugees, creation of newspapers, legislation fostering linguistic diversity. And they may transfer these documents, referred to the value “cultural pluralism”, to communities in A. Not only local communities, but also individuals and companies would exchange moral, organisational and cultural values, such as social justice, pluralism, environmentalism, propensity to innovation.

The price of experiences referred to a value would be determined by demand and supply – fixed, in the case of exchanges among countries, at the international level. The price of each document would be proportional to the number of experiences listed in it. And the application of a value would be assessed through indicators defined by law or international agreement. For instance, indicators referred to respect for the environment would include: a given reduction of CO2 emissions, a certain level of investment in negative emission technologies. Or, for local communities, a given increase in green areas. For individuals, a certain frequency of use of public transport. Moreover, a document referred to a value would be exchangeable with one or more other documents, or with goods and services.

This market would offer an economic incentive to adopt values that one had previously overlooked or even fought against: the possibility to transfer a document at a price higher than purchase price. Which would be possible thanks to two factors, namely the addition of new experiences to a document and the increase in the price of each of those experiences.

The role of a market for values for democracy and a sense of community

But why exchange values? Because values outdo useful products or good practices. They are criteria that allow us to choose among a range of initiatives and activities, and define our role in the world.

A market for values, within and among countries, would foster autonomy, meaning the condition whereby values are not a mere consequence of one’s role in the social fabric. An autonomous individual, community or company is rather able to shape a comprehensive worldview, and, on the basis of it, choose jobs, hobbies, relational styles; or legislation, policies, corporate missions.

Now, our world does not marginalise values. Many people advocate social justice, inclusivity, or, on the other side, national greatness, tradition and safety. Politicians and companies, far from wanting to explicitly impose their decisions and products, use values to legitimise their role. Through values they identify themselves, their enemies or competitors; reconnect otherwise isolated individuals; give them a sense of purpose; affirm their own utility. But, while we praise freedom and markets, the choice of values is rarely authentically free, autonomous; and, also for this reason, we do not exchange them. Economics itself, especially in its neoliberal version, is a value-neutral discipline, that focuses mainly on the free expression of preferences about goods, but very little about the free determination of worldviews or their comparison. As higher productivity requires division of labour, there is no particular need to shape a comprehensive, holistic relation with the whole of reality. This task is left to politics, as if it did not mirror the interests of the strongest groups.

Therefore, our societies are not true, inclusive communities. As most individuals and companies know that their notion of good is only functional to their particular interest, they have no incentive to compare values, change them, spread them.

On the other hand, a market for values would reconcile economic utility with the choice of principles that can be generalised also to others – as prescribed by Kantian ethics. And it would revitalise the link between authentic expression of individuality and sense of community – already highlighted by American philosopher William James. Capitalism – the system where, as argued by Max Weber, instrumental rationality is dominant – would feature also a value-based rationality. Allowing companies, governments and individuals to go beyond a partial, biased vision of social issues, detrimental for democracy.