“Where Markets Lead, Will Justice Follow?”: A Response to the Ford Foundation


On October 1st, the Ford Foundation posed the question “Where Markets Lead, Will Justice Follow?” to leaders in their fields.  Their responses varied in how they framed the market, the role of government, and the need for public goods.  But examining the question seems as important as reflecting on the answer. Why should markets lead? Markets are inherently undemocratic. Markets, as noted by some of the commentators, are only for those with the money to participate in them. And even if almost everyone participates in some aspect of the market, they remain profoundly undemocratic as your “vote” grows or shrinks depending on the amount of money you have. While we know democracy alone does not guarantee human rights, democracy remains an essential part of their character and practice, in particular given the centrality of the human right to participation in the systems, institutions and decision-making that determine basic rights. Is it then not the case that if markets lead in arenas that demand democratic processes, justice has already been compromised?

Amartya Sen famously wrote “to be generically against markets would be almost as odd as being generically against conversations between people,” arguing that people will always exchange goods and services. I believe this is likely to be true, and probably a good thing. But the evidence does not support the premise that markets consistently distribute those goods and services in an optimal way. On the contrary, there are profoundly important markets that do anything but that. Healthcare is a market – albeit a heavily subsidized one – in the United States that allows thousands to die due to lack of care while costing more than publicly financed systems with better outcomes. Our private healthcare financing system has perverse incentives to deny care, although clearly the goal of a healthcare sector should be to provide care. Care and profit are desperately at odds in a private insurance system. Housing is a profoundly important market to our economy – yet we have three times as many empty homes as homeless people. And these are but a few of the market arenas in which human rights are seriously at risk. Clearly something is amiss.

The questions we ask are often more important than the answers. They point to the paths we allow ourselves to consider and guide our thinking. Because markets are no more than vehicles towards other ends – profit, efficiency, growth, distribution, infrastructure — we might want to avoid putting them at the beginning of the question. We must lead with our values and if we are concerned with the outsized role of markets, as we should be, what we need to be asking is “where human rights lead, will markets follow?”  In some cases the answer is a resounding no, such as healthcare financing. That market has been nothing short of calamitous. The scorecard on housing isn’t very good either, although we are very far from imagining a scalable alternative. And in our world dominated by indifferent markets, work fails to deliver a decent standard of living, dignity or fulfillment for far too many. Does that mean we reject all markets wholesale? That would be shortsighted and thoughtless. In fact, it would be as shortsighted and thoughtless as the market fundamentalism that has taken hold, where we fail to even consider alternatives and almost pathologically ignore the evidence.  Market fundamentalism, which I loosely define as an almost divine faith in the inherent value of markets, irrespective of the evidence, is among the greatest threats to human rights today. But can we create more democratic markets?  And can markets play a more constructive role? These are important questions, and we need to look for honest and realistic answers.

There are some arenas, however, where markets have clearly demonstrated their incompatibility with human rights. When it comes to basic human rights, such as education, healthcare, housing, food, water and a basic standard of living, government must play whatever role is necessary. Nonetheless, given a range of markets are the source of great injustices, the other question we need to ask is how can we build the power to make markets follow at least the minimal human rights obligations? Judith Samuelson, of the Aspen Institute, states that what matters in terms of corporate social responsibility is CEO leadership. I can’t imagine a less tenable situation than human rights depending on who happens to have those jobs. It is far from a structural or reliable solution. So what is a solution and, just as importantly, how do we get there? Despite Ray Offenheiser’s claim that Oxfam was not seeing “the kind of transformative structural change that [they] were after” with grassroots work, one of the most transformative examples we have in making markets follow basic human rights standards is right here in the United States: the Campaign for Fair Food. The Campaign for Fair Food has been led by farmworkers themselves who have worked simultaneously downstream in communities, with consumers, and activist networks, as well as upstream in collaboration with corporations, but only after building an unstoppable movement to end abuses in the agricultural supply chain in our country. The Campaign has resulted in the Fair Food Program – a comprehensive complaints-based, monitoring and worker-to-worker education system powered by swift market consequences for violations – that represents a worker-driven social responsibility model meriting further support.  We should be learning from those experiences that shifting power dynamics so our human rights are not at the mercy of any specific individual’s largess. And as Mr. Offenheiser notes, we must move from corporate responsibility to corporate accountability, which requires strengthening the role of government not only in setting standards, but in actual enforcement.

Even with the question posed, to be fair, many of the respondents agreed that we must reject market fundamentalism and argued for public goods and infrastructure, while others took less clear positions. It is a healthy and valid debate, but only if paired with a questioning of all our underlying assumptions and a clear message that we must always lead with our values.