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Markets and Morals (or a Tale of Mice and Man)

Notes from Planet Earth

The effect of markets on human morals has been a source of debate and concern for centuries. Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany in the 16th century, believed that the selling of indulgences, in which people paid to be granted forgiveness from sin, disgraced our morality. In the 19th century citizens of our country fought a terrible and costly civil war over the appropriateness (morality) of a very lucrative and economically important market in human beings. More recently, the political philosopher, Michael Sandel has published a book titled, “What Money Can’t Buy - The Moral Limits of Markets,” wherein he asks us to consider “... where markets belong and where they don’t …” noting that to answer that question we must assess “… the meaning and purpose of goods and the values that should govern them.”

Armin Falk and Nora Szech set out to quantitate the effect of markets on human morals using mice as the product to be traded under different market models. Their results were published this past May in Science magazine. The mice they used were young laboratory mice with a normal two-year life expectancy but which would, under normal circumstances, be sacrificed much sooner in some experiment. In the simplest baseline experiment the human subjects (each having a live mouse) were offered 10 euros in exchange for having their mouse killed. Mice not sold and killed were guaranteed a protected life free from experimentation. Approximately 45 percent of these subjects agreed to have their mouse killed in exchange for money.

The researchers went on to model more complicated “bilateral” and “multilateral” markets. In the “bilateral” markets the pairs of subjects (as “buyers” and “sellers”) would bargain over the price of having a mouse killed. While in the model of “multilateral” markets, many buyers and sellers traded with each other. In both of these modeled market situations the subjects were voluntarily exchanging a mouse’s life for money. But in these more complicated markets the human subjects were significantly more removed from the mice being traded (much like trading in pork bellies). In these latter two experiments 70 percent to 75 percent of the subjects were willing to engage in the trading — a highly significant difference compared to the simplest case where each subject had been given a specific mouse to trade. Additionally, the prices obtained for the death of a mouse in the multilateral market deteriorated significantly over time, a phenomenon not seen in a control experiment in which coupons for a consumable product replaced the mice as the items being traded.

Questions or suggestions from readers are welcomed; contact me at cwdingman2@frontier.com.

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