Recently I read David Graeber’s book ‘Debt, the 1st 5000 years’ and a quote of his about slavery really stuck out for me. When seeking to explain the complex social and economic systems that sprung up in Africa in response to Slavery (Secret societies who sanctioned members by disappearing them onto slave ships, laws specifying slavery as the punishment for all manner of crimes etc) he invites us to consider what would happen to human societies if a highly advanced alien race appeared and offered $1 million in unmarked bills in exchange for human beings. Sure we have all kinds of social norms, laws and principles that oppose slavery, but social institutions would inevitably arise in response to the incentive. One can imagine that governments might commute life sentences into banishment instead, many would object but it would only take a few who were willing to exploit the power that they held to make it work.
As an abstraction, this is a useful one for thinking about how money can obscure and legitimise bad outcomes. On a recent holiday to a developing country, I was struck by the willingness of local people to kowtow to tourists. The classic example was that if a taxi driver was carrying a local passenger, I observed they would often turf them out if they could see me looking for a ride. My white skin and unmistakably uncool straw sunhat was a clear signal that I had would pay handsomely – and the social norm of fairness and the implied contract that if one gets into a taxi, one is owed a ride to the destination in exchange for a fare, went out of the window. It’s a trivial observation that money corrupts people, but it’s instructive to look at it in the context of this idea of some alien agent turning up (in this case me) and without even taking action (i would on no account offer a taxi driver money to turf a local out) subvert social norms simply by being there. The fact that I then pay over the money for my taxi ride seals the bargain – everyone is a willing party to the injustice.
Most people have an intuition that inequality is bad because it allows the rich to buy all sorts of advantages over the poor, and this is unfair. That appeals to this moral sense we have that economic and social outcomes should not be one and the same, and a common dystopian sci-fi fantasy is to imagine a future where everything is for sale. But this misses the kind of unfairness in my example above. I have no desire to exercise the potential advantage that having money gives me, it’s not that money gives me the ability to buy an unjust privilege, it’s my white skin and clearly European attire that do that. Money is, in this case, a kind of veil over the injustice. It’s incidental, another kind of unfairness is at work – I am granted privilege on the basis of nationality (or race, or sunhat – I can’t be exactly sure as to the taxi guys prejudices!).
This is not to say that people are wrong when they call for moral limits to markets, or that money can’t buy unfair advantage, just to point out that while the particular institutions of money have their own problems, they are often a veil over unjust power dynamics that can cause even greater injustice. Back to our hypothetical aliens and their million dollar bounty on human lives, the real problem is not that the aliens are richer than us – it’s that they have power over us. They’re not subject to our laws because they’re highly advanced, so our governments’ injunctions against slavery, enforced ultimately by military might, have no force over them. The fact that money would enable them to easily and efficiently traffic in human lives reflects the fact that the cash would legitimate and obscure the violence of what they were doing. It’s good for economists to worry about how markets affect people. But it’s absolutely necessary they do so with an eye on power, who holds it, and whether money is a mere veil over their violence and injustice.