Market Values ARE Human Values

In a critique of a recent column by New York Times columnist David Brooks, Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, writes:

In a progressive context, individual dignity is a euphemism. It is a leftwing equivalent of “free enterprise,” a term employed by some right-wingers to provide a moral gloss to policies that exalt market values over human values.

Bacevich, generally a very smart man, makes a common mistake, seeing market values as contradicting or undercutting human values. But what are human values? They’re the values that humans have. Where do market values come from? They come from humans. If many people are willing to pay a lot for a limited number of tickets to a concert for example, the market value reflects the value that those humans put on the tickets.

Bacevich might challenge the idea that humans should value those concert tickets as much as they do. But if so, then he’s simply dismissing human values that don’t correspond with his own.

Bacevich’s error is similar to an error that has been around for a long time: the idea that there’s a conflict between property rights and human rights. In early 1970, in the first talk I ever saw Harold Demsetz, at the time a professor at the University of Chicago, give, Harold addressed that issue with a concrete example. Holding up his lecture notes, he said, “My property rights in my notes are my rights in my notes; they’re not the notes’ rights in themselves.” (By the way, somewhere in my attic, I still have the reel-to-reel tape of that talk.)