Write an opinion article (i.e. an analysis suitable for readers of a serious newspaper) of no more than 500 words on one of the following subjects:How best to judge whether government policies are helping or harming the economy.orWhether free markets have come to play too big a role in the organisation of society, at the expense of fairness.
It would be easy, when talking about fairness, to take the pedants’ corner and demand a definition of the topic. How can we know what is fair, until we know what fair is? Does fairness demand equity: that everyone is provided with the same food, clothing, housing and work? Or does a simple baseline suffice: nobody dies of hunger?
All too quickly, we’re in the weeds: bogged down in a debate about a word. This is unnecessary, for two reasons. The first is clear: we know what fair is. The word is part of our dialect: fair play, a fair go, all’s fair in love and war. And the meaning is intrinsic: we know when we’re cheating, and being cheated on hurts us. I might not be able to define the word but, like the Supreme Court Justice, I know it when I see it.
Secondly, it doesn’t really matter, and talking about it detracts from a far more important discussion. Whatever you decide “fair” means, it’s impossible to discuss the market’s effect on society without broaching the topic. We can determine pretty well the cost benefit of outsourcing, say, the prison system. We can discuss externalities: the spillover from the correctional into the judicial system, and its effects on corruption in the state. But the bigger question for society stands: is the widespread adoption of free market principles in many unexpected corners of life really fair?
The free market is a slippery character. At a glance, it offers absolute equality – anyone can take part. Produce a good, offer a service, add value, and you’re a part of the machine. Barriers are broken, and the poor are lifted from poverty. But there are human factors that remain unaddressed.
If, as it seems, adoption of the free market has led to some degree of unfairness, is it desirable or even possible to assign blame for its adoption? In a perfect democracy, given perfect foresight, we must all be responsible for any percieved inequality.
However, neither of those holds true. Government regulation of markets is necessary, but reduces their efficiency and leads to regulatory capture, a toytown phrase for corruption.
Then there’s the knowledge gap. Nobody was asked if we want supply-and-demand economics to solve inefficiencies in healthcare, education, or policing: it just happened. Put simply, we didn’t know what we were buying into.
In his book What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel describes the practice of wealthy Manhattenites hiring homeless men to stand in line all day, then buy tickets to Shakespeare plays in Central Park.
On the face of it, that makes perfect sense. The busy city manager – husband and father – is willing and able to spend money on theater tickets for his family. The homeless man has time and needs money. It stacks up.
Yet anyone that hears this feels a little sick. The free market may give us a fair price for wheat and grain but does nothing to address human dignity.