I am at the Chautauqua Institute in southwestern New York State for a week of lectures and discussions mixed with concerts, movies and visits to a nearby farmers’ markets. It is sweltering but am not complaining.
The Chautauqua Institute started as an alternative educational institution in the 1800’s for people who could not afford college degrees. It has since evolved into an important summer institution that offers by the week arts (fine and performing), lectures and discussions by prominent academics, writers and social observers in a country setting of Victorian structures i.e.houses, assembly halls, churches. Crafts, games and sports are also offered for all ages as well as ecumenical religious rites and activities in a setting next to Chautauqua Lake, a bucolic part of New York State.
I chose this week because of its theme: Markets, Morals and the Social Contract, which I think and am now fully convinced is relevant to our times.
So, here I am listening to David Brooks, columnist of the New York Times, E. J. Dionne, another columnist in the same paper, and Michael Sandel, professor of history at Harvard University, discussing the individual in today’s capitalist society vis-a-vis the community he adheres to and the social institutions existing.
The consensus of the three lecturers (speaking about the United States) is that markets, or what makes a profit, are beginning if not well on the way to overwhelming principles, religious beliefs, ethical practices and personal relationships. A trend that is turning humanity to be less humanitarian and more self-centered in the pursuit of making money and accumulating power through it. In truth, the above may be visible not only in the US but in other countries where market economies dominate to the detriment of everything else. And that includes this country, where accomplishments, success and triumph are measured by how much money, possession, prestige is made, ignoring other values, religious beliefs and accepted ethical practices.
When money becomes the measure the process of commodification begins, everything can be bought or sold it—a kidney, getting by laws, desirable social status, publicity, luxury, extravagant social events. Life becomes defined only as external leaving no place, much less importance to the inner existence of values that are spiritual, unselfish, humanitarian, which cannot be bought or sold. Human beings have to balance their inner and outer lives, the material and the spiritual. But what has occurred in capitalist environments of extreme laissez faire and worship of success in money-making is a dominant extrinsic state where the rich have become so much richer and the not-so-rich or even poor, have become so much poorer because too much money brings on higher prices or what the traffic of the rich can bear, leaving the rest in dire powerlessness. In this situation the final arbiter of how to judge becomes the market, what makes money as against what does not—religion, discipline, altruism, self-reflection are then ignored if not diminished.
The crisis of the markets, the economic upheaval that erupted in 2008 in the US and spread throughout the world has brought the topic being discussed in these lectures here this week. Yet the three lecturers seemed to imply that even as it has been brought up, it has not quite become the main topic of public discourse being overshadowed by measures of trying to mitigate the crisis. Most observers from academic, journalistic, religious, historical perspectives note that the topic has not yet engaged or captured the general public enough to debate measures to address what must be addressed. The compulsion for money-making has not paused nor been deliberated. The players seemingly unaware or comfortable with what is happening.
The gap between the rich and the poor which has widened in the past decades due to allowing the markets to dominate the economy and social institutions has brought on a disparity that threatens the social contract which is Democracy or the belief and practice of governance where people are equal as persons and the rule of the majority prevails. It is not acceptable in a Democracy that some are more equal than others, or much richer and the many much poorer.
The lecturers illustrated it. Michael Sandel said that when he went to baseball games in his youth, he could pay for a bleacher seat which may have been near a box seat where someone with $2.00 more would sit. But they were in the same space, could see and talk to each other. Today box seats cost a lot more and there is a new and more expensive category, the skybox, which costs hundreds of dollars and is segregated from the rest of the public with no possibility of interaction, divided worlds..
David Brooks said he was asked to teach ethical values to current students but found it difficult in an atmosphere of high competition for grades and doing the work that will entitle them to big salaries and prestigious jobs. These students have no time to think about their inner life, no time or place for it. Their world is defined by market conditions and the terms of reference that the market dictates. Thus, the disinterest in the liberal arts, the humanities, literature in universities today. E.J. Dionne said the same—that markets trump governance, eschewing community unity and solidarity. Governance is compromised and becomes unequal, unjust and unfair for those in a different economic and social status.
The conclusion of all three with the participative audiences they attracted is that the time has come to invoke moral limits on markets. That nation-building is not about accumulating too much wealth but about earning it on a level playing field, sharing it with payment of the right taxes, philanthropy (not crumbs from the table), standing for each other and strengthening the social contract which is Democracy.
Each human being has the tension between an inner and an outer life, his core values and his actions in everyday life. This tension should be balanced not done away with in one extreme or the other.
One said young people should think not of what they want for themselves but what history or their country or their neighbor needs from them. One arrives at that knowledge through introspection, an examination of beliefs, principals, morals – the gamut of the inner life.
For older people or those who know better, the point is not to preach the message but to live it by the example of living lives that embody the weight of values that bring dignity and honor to humanity.
In time I can see that this will reach true and complete public discourse in the US as it is beginning to do so now. We should do the same here for the sake of our society and the way we have chosen to define it.