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Dave Belden Headshot

Dollar Idolatry

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Why is the New York Times op-ed page -- that supposedly liberal voice -- crassly preaching the gospel of money? In "What to Expect When You're Free Trading" (op-ed Jan 16) one Steven Landsburg, an economics professor, tells us that we should not even want the government to provide retraining or other compensation for people who lose their jobs to outsourcing and other effects of free trade. He argues that if we followed that morality, we would then have to compensate every loser: the pharmacist who loses our business when we buy cheaper on the web, the diner which loses our custom to McDonalds. "Public policy," he advises, "should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives."

Prof. Landsburg surely knows that many of us do prefer to buy from the pharmacist we have bought from for years, rather than save a little by buying on the web, for once the pharmacist and her smile and expertise are gone, no money will bring her back. Of course we want to pay to retrain our neighbors, especially if it is a general benefit that has brought their misfortune. We want to care for each other.

If in every economic relationship we have to suppress our natural love and concern for each other, so that we only increase our economic benefit, what happens? We restrict love and community to only those spheres of life that have no economic dimension: family, religion, nature. But commercial values are increasingly suffusing those spheres too, so we marry for advantage and train our children to earn big bucks, and believe in a prosperity gospel. And the results of all this lack of love and caring are that we feel increasingly alienated, depressed, alone, while huge gaps open up in society between rich and poor and the losers go to the wall. The losers of course include other species, thousands of them going extinct. We are not able to be one nation, still less one world or one biosphere, when we do not care for one another in the areas of work and commerce.

I am not arguing for or against free trade, but for a radical revision of our worldview, whereby we judge every transaction, every institution, every economics department by how much it increases our capacity for love, community, joy, and connection with each other and the whole natural world. Otherwise the rich are hugely enriched, many of us somewhat enriched, and all of us without exception are impoverished, bereft of the loving communities we could enjoy.

As is clear from all his talk of morality, it is not primarily economics Mr. Landsburg and his ilk are pushing. It is a religion of selfishness. Market economics is hugely powerful, productive and in its way glorious, for it can bring entire populations out of poverty, but it will only do so if compassionate values rule. Like so many things, market economics is a good servant but a bad master. It is no candidate at all for worship. Mr. Landsburg is truly a fundamentalist at the altar of materialism. By following his cult we have come to our current sorry pass, wherein we get constantly richer but no happier.