Thursday, December 1, 2011

Success and Morality in a Market Economy

There has been a lot of talk about economic success and moral virtue recently: the Tyler Cowen encomium to the morality of Teutonic creditors I jumped on yesterday, the Zingales conflation of meritocracy and justice that Andrew Gelman skewers today, and, on the other side, the complaint one sometimes hears from the 99-percenters that we are being dragged down by the greed of the other 1%.  My favorite observation on all this comes from one of the most eminent of Victorians, John Ruskin.  (Incidentally, I first came across this quotation in P. S. Atiyah's magnificent The Rise and Fall of Freedom of Contract.)

In a community regulated by laws of demand and supply, but protected from open violence, the persons who become rich are, generally speaking, industrious, resolute, proud, covetous, prompt, methodical, sensible, unimaginative, insensitive, and ignorant.  The persons who remain poor are the entirely foolish, the entirely wise, the idle, the reckless, the humble, the thoughtful, the dull, the imaginative, the sensitive, the well-informed, the improvident, the irregularly and impulsively wicked, the clumsy knave, the open thief, and the entirely merciful, just, and godly person.


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