The implications of a market for values for individual autonomy and a sense of community

8 aprile 2020 -

In this series of articles Marco Senatore offers an analysis of the current state of economics and the proposal to establish a market for moral, organizational and cultural values. This instrument would reconcile surplus extraction and individual autonomy and therefore economics and ethics, with significant social and political implications.

The establishment of a market for values, as proposed in my previous article, would provide an economic incentive to adopt principles that are independent from one’s immediate interests as producer, consumer, worker, policymaker or voter. This would foster autonomy and in particular what in my book Exchanging Autonomy I defined ‘functional autonomy’, as the condition whereby values are not a mere consequence of one’s role in the world, but rather they influence the choice of such role. This kind of autonomy implies that a beliefs system shapes actions undertaken in every ambit of an individual’s life (for instance choices about work, vote, consumption, production, relations), allowing him/her to change his/her own actions when they are inconsistent with the convictions. This would also contribute to fostering a deep sense of community.


Indeed, functional autonomy of individuals is a necessary condition for the existence of a community – i.e. a society that perceives its own intrinsic dignity and not the mere task of reconciling the conflicting, atomistic interests of citizens. If individuals know that belief systems are only instrumental to one’s own interests, they will not have any incentive to share their values, nor change them and adopt new ones.

Without autonomy, our principles cannot be a modality to contribute discursively to the formation of a shared identity within the community. From this point of view, it is crucial to recall how Jean-Jacques Rousseau distinguished between the will of all and the general will, as “the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills.” (Social Contract II, 3).


And Immanuel Kant, whose moral philosophy gave a central role to autonomy, provided his third formulation of the categorical imperative as “the Idea of the will of every rational being as a will that legislates universal law.” (The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:432).

Also William James highlighted the strict connection between individual and community, observing that “The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.


Therefore, a market for values would have also a relevant political dimension. The neoliberal ideology fosters an atomization of society, deprived of strong social bonds, whereas populism embraces principles such as nation and tradition without giving relevance to the practical implementation of these or other values by citizens. Therefore, both narratives falsely claim to favor, respectively, individuality or community, whereas they only use these principles as ideological expedients.

While for Adam Smith economics was very much linked with ethics, with the prevalence of the neoclassical paradigms they have distanced from each other. The ethical approach to economics characterized a first stage (thesis), when this discipline contributed to the living of a good life and saw wealth creation as a subsidiary end, as argued by Amartya Sen. The engineering approach, concerned with primarily logistic issues rather than with ultimate ends, represents an antithesis, still dominant in mainstream economics. A market for values would represent the synthesis of this dialectical process, a dimension that reconnects economics with its original nature.


In the past the contraposition between State and market was the product of the neoliberal doctrine, for which the private sector is in general more efficient, significantly limiting the need for public intervention. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, has rightly underscored the dangers of a society where everything is up for sale, and where certain moral and civic goods, that markets do not honor and money cannot buy, are overlooked.

During the last financial crisis, in the euro area public debt levels sharply increased, also due to support to the financial sector, and this was later on sanctioned by markets through an increase in sovereign spreads. The duopoly in the assessment of policies is shared by financial markets, that are not concerned about social issues, and by citizens often prone to oversimplification also with regard to the effects of their own choices.


However, making values the element that can be a complement of money and commodities, as the input and output of our activities, would mean giving markets the moral and civic connotation which they are currently deprived of. The passage from market economies to market societies, where social relations are embedded in the economy – to use a famous distinction by Karl Polanyi – may be irreversible. But a market for values would deeply change the nature of the economy, turning it into a mechanism that fosters cooperation among individuals (in the practical implementation and public assessment of values) instead of greedy individualism. And such market would not operate any “commodification” of values, since the latter would be a medium of exchange complementary with money, not something buyable through it, and an element that inspires freely chosen activities – unlike it happens with division of labor.


In the next article I will deal with the impact that a market for values would have on the role of politics, on the contribution of individuals to society and on a spiritual level.







Brian Atkinson, Peter Baker and Bob Milward, Economic Policy, Macmillan, 1996.


Frank Cunningham, Market Economies and Market Societies, Journal of Social Philosophy 36(2): 129-142, 2005.


William James, Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment, in The Will to Believe, The New World, Volume 5: pp. 327-347 (1896).


Immanuel Kant, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten; 1785 (The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, tr. Allen W. Wood, 2002).


Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1944.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, 1762 (The Social Contract, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1920).


Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012.


Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell; 1987.


Marco Senatore, Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the


Crises of Our Times, Xlibris, 2014.


Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments [1759], Knud Haakonssen (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2002.


Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [1776], University of Chicago Press, 1977.



Marco Senatore (Genova, 1975) has worked at the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund. He wrote the book Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times (Xlibris, 2014) and some articles published among others by the blog Business Review of the London School of Economics, openDemocracy and the blog of the World Bank, regarding the idea of a market for values. He currently works at the Ministry of Economy and Finance of Italy. This series of articles does not represent the views of his institution.