Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

On Markets and Morality: Revisiting Fred Hirsch

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

On Markets and Morality: Revisiting Fred Hirsch

Article excerpt


This article argues for the continuing relevance of Fred Hirsch's The Social Limits to Growth (1976), valued as a critical analysis of the consequences of markets on the moral fabric of society. Two concepts that are fundamental to Hirsch--the commercialization bias and the depleting moral legacy--will be scrutinised. We further claim that this book, by emphasizing the tendency to market expansion and the corresponding commodification of increasing spheres of social life, while simultaneously acknowledging its adverse consequences on the motivational appeal of social and moral norms, offers insights that justify revisiting it.

Keywords: Fred Hirsch, markets, morality, neoliberalism


Once a social system such as capitalism convinces everyone that it can dispense with morality and public spirit, the universal pursuit of self-interest being all that is needed for satisfactory performance, the system will undermine its own viability, which in fact is premised on civic behaviour and on the respect of certain moral norms to a far greater extent than capitalism's official ideology avows. (Albert Hirschman, Against Parsimony)


The above quotation sums up one of the most important insights developed by Fred Hirsh in Social Limits to Growth, published in 1976. This article is an effort to bring into contemporary debate the analysis forged in this remarkable and much neglected work of economic theory. As with almost all ambitious efforts aimed at analysing the nature of social relations in capitalism, it is very difficult to make a critical analysis of this book. In fact, we face a resourceful work that defies simple categorizations. Nevertheless, the effort is worth making, not only because it contains insights and concepts that may prove useful for current debates about market institutions, but also because it was written at a time of transition to a new phase of capitalism which it tentatively tries to capture and anticipate. In the spirit of Polanyi (1957), this new phase of capitalism can be thought of as the product of the unleashing of a second great transformation. By that we mean that there is again an ongoing process, both at theoretical and policy levels, which aims to extend the reach of markets. If what Radin (1997) labels the aim of "universal commodification" is well entrenched today, then our argument is that Hirsch's critical analysis of the consequences of markets on the moral fabric of society is highly valuable.

Hirsch's analysis takes, as its point of departure, the consequences of sustained economic growth within the framework of a market-based society. Such a broad and ambitious theoretical inquiry combines diverse and sometimes antagonistic classical traditions in the history of economic and social thought--from Adam Smith to Karl Marx. Furthermore, Hirsch dealt with a set of themes and analysis, focusing on the role of individual motivations, institutions and the problem of social order, that were common to a group of social theorists working, since the late 60s, at the intersection of economics and other social sciences. (1) In particular, he engages himself with authors, which at the time had been producing highly innovative works, such as Mancur Olson, Thomas Schelling, Tibor Scitovsky or Richard Titmuss, in order to build his analysis of market societies. This intellectual eclecticism means that Hirsch does not immediately fit into conventional ideological boundaries, giving rise to a multitude of readings (and misreadings)--hence one can speak of conservative/right-wing Hirschians or progressive/left-wing Hirschians, or even of 'Hirsch, the social democrat' (Crouch 1983), (2) obliterating that maybe Hirsch himself was after all proposing a deliberate ambivalence towards these rigid strictures.

In order to analyse the consequences of the complex transformative dynamics of a socioeconomic system within the framework proposed by Hirsch, we will try to summarize his main points in the second section with a particular emphasis on the so-called "commercialization bias", pointing out how it hinders relevant and strategic choices while paradoxically claiming the centrality of freedom of choice. …

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