June 05, 2008


"The Worship of Mammon," a 1909 painting by Evelyn De Morgan, courtesy of wikipedia.

Back in the 1990s, Protestant theologian Harvey Cox wrote an interesting essay called The Market as God.

In it, he chronicled the rise of a new "religion," which is a parody of biblical monotheism.

In that theology, The Market is all wise, all good and all knowing. It too is a jealous god and becomes most wrathful when anything (like taxes, labor laws, regulations, or public spending for infrastructure or social services) gets in its way.

For true believers, The Market can do no wrong. If the global economy wipes out some communities or kills lots of workers on the job, we are supposed to remember that its ways are not our ways nor or its thoughts our thoughts.

Although humans have probably been exchanging things almost as long as we've been around, this elevation of Market to deity status is pretty new. As Cox put it,

Since the earliest stages of human history, of course, there have been bazaars, rialtos, and trading posts -- all markets. But The Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and meaning, other "gods." The Market operated within a plethora of other institutions that restrained it. As Karl Polanyi has demonstrated in his classic work The Great Transformation, only in the past two centuries has The Market risen above these demigods and chthonic spirits to become today's First Cause.

Initially The Market's rise to Olympic supremacy replicated the gradual ascent of Zeus above all the other divinities of the ancient Greek pantheon, an ascent that was never quite secure. Zeus, it will be recalled, had to keep storming down from Olympus to quell this or that threat to his sovereignty. Recently, however, The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament -- not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must now be universally accepted and who allows for no rivals.

Alas, the Market=God equation makes for bad religion and bad economics. Markets, generally speaking, are a good thing. I buy most of my stuff on them. But like any human institution, they sometimes fail and are always shaped and influenced by other factors, including values, communities, laws and policies.

The less we think of it as a God, the more likely we are to make markets work as a good.

ON A SIMILAR NOTE, here's a critique of the "gospel of consumption."

STUFF THIS. Self-storage is an American growth industry. Could this be the market's way of telling us we have too much stuff?

STUFFED AND STARVED. A new book argues that obesity and world hunger are flip sides of the coin of a messed up food system.

TWISTED PRIORITIES. The latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute highlights more skewed priorities and anti-labor bias.


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