Due to COVID-19 we are forced to acknowledge the importance of human life as the basic, fundamental value that unites the world. And societies are rediscovering other associated values that are essential for its defence: solidarity, prudence, enforcement of rules, access to public health services.
A question is posed. Can we still rely on an economic system that is based on neutrality towards values, even those that are fundamental for our survival? For instance, can capitalism continue to foster the systematic depletion of natural resources and endanger biodiversity, when a recent publication by WWF Italy has highlighted the likely connections of these activities with the spread of the coronavirus?
We still also believe in a plurality of other, often conflicting, principles, and maybe we always will. The polytheism of values highlighted by Max Weber is from many points of view an integral part of our freedom and democracy. But we can no longer afford to pretend that, in our daily interactions it is only the exchange of goods and services that connects us with each other. A market for values may seem a paradoxical concept, but it is exactly what we need to give public relevance to deeper aspects of our interconnectedness.
COVID-19 has now spread within Europe and America. The response of the European Union and of the United States has been fast, and aimed at trying to contain contagion, support the economy and avoid major disruption. The biggest cost of this emergency has to do with human loss and suffering in many countries. But this may overshadow the fundamental, structural roots and implications of this situation. Given the necessary focus on the efforts of scientists to deliver a vaccine, of hospitals to treat patients, and of governments to prevent a further spread of the virus, the question may seem less urgent. And yet, what will become of us after this is over?
When confronted with external threats, societies often seem to be initially more united, ready to foster cooperation and mitigate inner divisions. This was the case in the USA after 9/11, and in Europe during the last sovereign debt crisis. On the other hand, when societies do not deal also with problems such as inequality, at home, or suppression of human rights, abroad, solidarity can be short-lived. Despite such expressions, the problem of capitalism remains the same: invoking ‘society’ to deal with problems created by saying that “There is no such thing as society” (as Margaret Thatcher declared). This is also occurring after the rise of populism and nationalism, as in the 1930s, in reaction to the consequences of neoliberal, deregulated economies. What seems fundamental is our apparent inability to choose values, such as life, respect for the environment, and justice, as the guide for our individual projects and activities, rather than rhetorical statements of blame toward others.
To use a distinction introduced by Ferdinand Tönnies, our societies are no longer communities. They are groups of like-minded individuals, often striving to affirm themselves in a world that considers ideals and worldviews as a private choice, endorsable by the general public only in the context of voting and consuming products of the culture industry. And, as most people and organisations consider their own particular experiences and interests, as the private expectation of what the world should do in order to allow them to maximise utility and profit, there is little space for challenging values, adopting new ones, applying them and sharing them.
A ‘market’ for values – exchange of ideas with intrinsic meaning – would be an essential component of a new relation between economics and ethics, individual and community, capitalism and democracy. Indeed, this market would provide an economic incentive to adopt values that are independent from one’s immediate direct interests, and from one’s role in the social fabric. In a nutshell, individuals, companies and local communities would have the chance to share their experiences with regard to the benefits of applying values such as social justice, environmentalism, inclusivity, propensity to innovation. These experiences would be described on some documents, exchangeable on the market. Each of the experiences should consist in pursuing and reaching a quantitative target, chosen among a wide set of indicators decided by law.
For instance, a local community A may add its own experience of how beneficial (e.g. in terms of increased tourism and better health conditions) is environmentalism, through increasing green areas by a certain percentage. The local community may then transfer its document to a town (or even a company, individual), B, that may for instance decide to pursue environmentalism through a given increase in public transport. Town B may then transfer the document to a local community C, that decides to apply environmentalism through tax exemptions for green investments. Similarly, individuals may certify their experiences through a given minimum amount of donations to green charities; and companies may do the same through a certain reduction of CO2 emissions, or a minimum level of investments in negative emissions technologies.
As for another value, indicators referred to social justice may include a given reduction in the Gini index (for local communities) and in wage dispersions (for firms). A town may prove the benefits of lower inequality, in terms of greater social cohesion. After adding an experience to its document, the town may for instance transfer it to another local community, that later on decides to mobilise resources to foster the participation of women to the labour market.
Each document would be exchangeable with documents referred to other values, or with goods and services. The price of the experiences referred to each value would be determined by demand and supply. And the price of each document would be proportional to the number of experiences listed in it. The economic incentive to enter this market would be the possibility to transfer a document at a price (a monetary equivalent) higher than purchase price – which would be possible thanks to two factors: the addition of one or more new experiences and the ability to forecast an increase in the price of the experiences connected with that given value.
Currently, politics already acts to provide economic incentives to undertake activities such as green investments. But, even when an individual or a firm is genuinely prone to applying principles like social justice or inclusivity, it does not have any formal instrument able to spread the same choice to the world. Our relations with the world are always mediated by money and objects: but the money we receive for our work or products may be used by ourselves or others also to undertake projects that are totally opposite to the ones on which our work or products were based. And the objects we create and transform do not carry within themselves a particular ethical, existential connotation. The analyses by Hannah Arendt on labour as the dominant form of active life are still valid, because intrinsically linked with our value-neutral capitalism.
On the other hand, a market for values, while preserving the need for an economic incentive for most human actions, would separate the concept of the economic from monetary expression. Values, as non-monetary resources, would play the role of a form of capital, comparable to money, commodities and productive inputs. But, unlike these forms of what Marx called industrial capital, values would precede the choice of the particular activity to be undertaken. This would mean abandoning that paradigm, division of labour, that is considered crucial for higher productivity, but that is also conducive to individual alienation, lack of interdisciplinarity in academia, fragmentation and dispersion of knowledge.
Marco Senatore works at the Treasury Department for the Italian government. The opinions expressed in this article do not represent the views of his institution.