Somewhere between morals and markets, apparently, sits what we now call society...
COULD AN ACADEMIC choose a better book title right now? Published in 2008, Morals & Markets came out just after the financial crisis first broke.
Pity it wholly ignores the preceding bubble in credit. Too bad it misses the moral failings (and pleading) of today's bankers, politicians and debtors. And it's a real shame the book doesn't nail down the simple, clear idea declared at the start by its author.
"All social creatures face a fundamental dilemma," writes Daniel Friedman, professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in his prologue.
"What's good for the individual is not always what's good for the group."
So far, so pointed. And tracing this fact makes for a series of great stories and insights – right from micro-biology to chimps vs. bonobos, hunter-gatherer and early tribal societies...onto feudal loyalties and the reasons for Europe playing home to the industrial revolution...through the ugly birth (and still uglier death) of communism, onto the late 20th century's attempt to create "markets" from the well-meaning morals of environmentalist lobbies.
But flitting from science to history to a quick press story and back doesn't deliver the "evolutionary account of the modern world" vaunted by the publisher's subtitle. Nor does applying this populist method (what you might call the "Tipping Point trick" of calling anecdote "trend" and odds'n'ends "pattern") disguise the half-hearted length of the book.
Just 182 pages to trace how the modern world works? Made 40% longer through notes and appendix? You might prefer Matt Ridley's The Red Queen at 400 pages for a deeper "evolutionary account" of what drives mankind. On pretty much the same subject as Friedman – but showing how society and markets are in fact one and the same – James Macdonald's 500-page tome A Free Nation Deep in Debt is well worth sticking with. Or to gasp at how the growth of money and finance put a price on loyalty and morals, you could lose yourself in James Buchan's 300-plus pages of Frozen Desire.
Most disappointing of all, Prof. Friedman seems hell-bent on never defining his terms – neither "morals" nor "markets" – not even while claiming they offer two "distinct ways to cope [with that] fundamental dilemma" of trying to spy where true self-interest lies, whether in working together or acting alone. That leaves his idea a long way short of a thesis. Which is really a pity. For where it succeeds, Morals & Markets makes a cracking good read.
Friedman on the collapse of the Soviet Union, for instance, is better than any other re-telling I've found. He shows how the true farce of Boris Yeltsin's drunken reforms was that Russia's "transition to kleptocracy" was already baked into the crust long before the ill-advised, ill-timed race to perestroika.
So in the Soviet Union, personal morality (otherwise known as "motivation", although Friedman rarely states the connection) meant that using the black market wasn't merely illegal. It was also essential for making ends meet, let alone self-advancement. During the USSR's grinding decline of the 1980s, factory managers and local officials happily sold what belonged to the state – profiting from what they did not own, in short – setting a clear pattern for the robber barons of the '90s.
Suddenly invoking the idea of personal property rights, therefore, Yeltsin's Kremlin simply dumped the concept onto people with no practise or interest in applying ownership as the new rule of law. The base morality of the black market underpinned his new "free market" Russia, putting violent chancers and spivs way ahead from the start.
You'll learn plenty more from Morals & Markets, and it sparks plenty to argue with, too. If Japan's lost decade of the 1990s was due to its strict social deference, for example – a deference that kept whistle-blowers quiet and propped up its banks with state funds to protect the status quo – just how would that square with the West's own zombified finance today?
Still, fair's fair; Friedman says at the start that he won't "try to give the final word" on morals and markets, aiming instead to "enlighten, entertain and inspire." So long as your twenty bucks aren't asking anything else, Morals & Markets is well worth buying today.