Libertarianism, Academic Philosophy

Markets and Care

[Editor’s Note: Kevin Currie-Knight is a PhD Candidate at University of Delaware’s School of Education. He specializes in the history and philosophy of education. His dissertation, From Laissez-Faire to Vouchers, is an intellectual history of (market) libertarian thought pertaining to American education.]

In my field of philosophy of education, it is difficult not to come across the ethical theory of care ethics, a position to which I’ve grown pretty sympathetic. But neither folks in education nor care ethicists are usually sympathetic to markets (at least not for things like educational services or other “basic needs”). Now, to me, some of the things markets do best – like encourage people who may not otherwise cooperate to meet each other’s needs – jibe pretty well with an ethic of care. Let me explain.

Care Ethics

For those not familiar, care ethics is a theory (or maybe a set of similar theories) arguing that the morally important feature of any act between people (or sometimes, between people and things, like the environment) is whether they create or nurture caring relationships between parties. While care ethicists differ regarding whether care is more about intent (Michael Slote), achieving a “caring” result (Daniel Engster), or some of both (Virginia Held), one thing that isn’t (very) controversial among care ethicists is that we care most directly and effectively for those who are close to us such as family and friends. The more we attempt to extend care outward to distant others, the more a stronger “caring for” becomes a weaker “caring about.” This becomes a problem when care ethicists argue that care ethics can extend from a theory about personal relations to one about social justice.

Because care is most effective the “closer to home” it is, care ethicists tend to argue for decentralized systems of governance: that local community members are in the best position to assess and respond to the needs of other community members. Sadly, this enthusiasm for decentralization does not generally extend to the idea that markets might offer care more effectively than governments. I think it should, and here’s why.

Care Ethics + Markets

First, if care ethicists generally recognize that we are partial in caring most naturally for those close to us, then markets may offer a way to get folks cooperating in a caring way toward unknown others. This is a similar position to Adam Smith’s, who  several care ethicists argue developed a sentimentalist moral position that is a forerunner to care ethics (without paying much attention to Smith’s market liberalism as an extension of his moral theory). . Smith took very seriously the idea that humans’ sympathy for others is limited the farther removed the person is from us (geographically or otherwise), and that if this is so, markets may offer a way to align our interests in a way that allows people to satisfy others’ needs without solely depending on people taking on the difficult task of extending their sympathies farther and farther outward. (This might be controversial with those care ethicists for whom the purity of caring motive matters more than producing results that meet people’s needs. But as I’ve said, care ethicists differ on whether and how much intent or result matters more.)

Second, there is reason to believe that, by inducing people to cooperate who may not otherwise, markets may well create genuinely caring relations that wouldn’t arise otherwise. There is increasing evidence that markets are actually quite good at creating and nurturing caring and empathic  relations between people, the expressed goal of many care ethicists. Also, while markets are often criticized by care ethicists and others for being impersonal, markets may be best described as impersonal when they need to be, and personal when they need to be. If consumers value the ‘personal touch’ as part of what they are buying – as they do in rewarding companies with good customer service, and will likely demand when shopping for things like education or medical care – then the most successful companies will likely be those who cater to that demand. (This point warrants more elaboration than I can give in this post; I will return to it in a future post.)

Lastly, governments are often less likely to be responsive and attentive to needs than private actors in markets. One reason I think care ethicists would do well to take markets more seriously is because, as a student of public choice economics, I am well aware of the many instances and reasons why government services often tend to serve the interests of the providers before the recipients and become more bureaucratic and inflexible over time. (In my field of Education, Myron Lieberman, E.G. West, and Arthur Seldon have provided vivid examples of this tendency and the reasons for them.) If care ethicists value attentiveness and responsiveness to needs on the part of the carer, it may not be the best idea to put care into the political realm, stripping it of price signals (to let providers know how they are doing in serving consumers) and risking the bureaucratizing of care.

Those are just a few reasons why I think that taking care ethics seriously (as a theory that has something to offer as a framework for thinking about political and social institutions) means taking markets seriously. As I see it, the big takeaway here is that markets may not only achieve a more socially just world, but engender a more caring world where people are driven to attend to others’ needs not via coercive governmental policies, but reciprocal and positive-sum  transactions that can help forge caring relations between people.

  • Ryan Calhoun

    Interesting article. I was wondering if in your market care ethics, if there is any possibility of deriving a moral principle like the NAP, or is this more of a generally classical liberal and not a strictly libertarian approach? I’m not exactly sure what constitutes care, but it would seem that part of caring for individuals is treating them as such, independent individuals from you, but that might be too Kantian.

    • Kevin Currie-Knight


      I don’t think one could make the NAP and care ethics
      consistent. While care ethicists are still a bit vague (and varied
      between them) on what the necessary conditions for care are, they are
      generally quite skeptical of conceptions of autonomy that are overly
      individualistic, seeing autonomy as relational and partly constituted by
      our dependence on each other.

      Because care ethicists often focus
      on the idea of how we should interact in cases where others are
      vulnerable and need care (parent to child, teacher to student, doctor to
      patient), they might only go so far as to say that we should not coerce
      others when we have reason to believe that they are capable of caring
      for themselves, but not in situations where we have reason to believe
      that the other cannot fully take care of themselves.

      In fact,
      one of the reasons I think I was first drawn to care ethics is that I am
      in the field of Education, and when dealing with children, the idea of
      the NAP can’t always describe how we should interact toward children.

  • Matthew DeCarlo

    Great article. And thanks for the introduction to care ethics. A lot of these arguments translate very well into social work, my discipline.

  • Drew

    Private community colleges have exploded in the last decade and have left some of our most vulnerable students with tremendous debt and nearly worthless degrees. I’m sympatheitc to hypothetical circumstances which would incentivize these schools to provide quality education at an accessible price. But why would we expect those circumstances to materialize when they would certainly mean smaller profits?

    • Kevin Currie-Knight


      Good question. Sure, there will definitely be instances where companies provide people with what people think they want or what the company induces people to want (when they should want something different). And, yes, focus on profits can lead to situations where what is best for customers might conflict with what is profitable for the business.

      I suppose my response is that while markets may not lead to these community colleges improving the quality of instruction, that doesn’t seem to be a reason to suppose that government-run community colleges will do better. Particularly because the value of a degree in the future is quite speculative and not something ANYONE can generally know in advance of choosing a school, I don’t see why government provided education will be immune from setting up schools that turn out to offer quite worthless degrees and subpar education. At least markets have the advantage of allowing people to shop around and seek different schools if they become unsatisfied or find a school they think is better (even if this exit may not necessarily be easy, it exists.)

      Also, I’d suggest that this may be a problem stemming from asymmetry between information customers have about the schools when they are shopping around and information the producers (schools) have. I’d actually be quite open to government having some role in mandating that certain information be available to customers that might aid them in making a more accurate appraisal of options. (I think Hayek at some point made a case for laws increasing the flow of information in markets on libertarian grounds?)

      • Damien S.

        Uh, government community colleges exist, and AFAIK do in fact do better than the wave of often fraudulent for-profit colleges.

      • Drew

        Thanks for the reply Kevin. A question I struggle with is why are affluent communities often serviced by a thriving high quality public k12 district? As opposed to being serviced by competing private schools. It is in these communities where parents have the resources to send their students to expensive private schools. Yet in some affluent communities the private school prescence is minimal indicating a rather weak demand. Perhaps the public district is incentivized by the reality that their students could enroll elsewhere? Possible, but regardless of the answer we still find ourselves with the public district being the institution of choice for the majority of an affluent community. An outcome that by some peoples reckoning shouldn’t be possible.

        • Kevin Currie-Knight

          That is a good question, Drew. I think it goes a bit beyond the scope of my post, but I’m tempted to suggest that the reason is a combination of already paying for the public schools via tax monies (and not being able to get the money back if a private school is chosen), and the fact that rich districts generally do have schools of better quality (on several measures). Both of these factors probably decrease the motivation to seek alternative schooling arrangements, particularly ones you have to pay separately for.

          But I wonder what would happen if there were rules in place that allowed people in these districts to use their tax monies to choose either the public or private schools. My guess – and it is ultimately an empirical question – is that you’d see a good deal more parents and students want to attend various private schools and more private schools crop up.

          • Damien S.

            Affluent suburbs are often small. I’d think they could vote to disband the schools, or to fund them poorly if they’re required to have public schools. Such places typically skimp on services like public transit…

          • Kevin Currie-Knight


            That is not generally the way school funding works. A good amount of the money for schools comes from the state, not the locality (and it is generally earmarked for the purpose of spending on public schools, so spending the money elsewhere isn’t an option either). It depends on the state for the amount the particular state funds but 25% or so of states’ average budget goes to fund schools.)

            As for disbanding the public schools, that tends not to be an option (unless they are replaced with new public schools, per the laws of all 50 states). I suppose districts could decide to devote less of THEIR OWN funds to the public schools, but as with most government services, once a service exists that is paid for by taxes, people get very used to both the service and the taxes such that it would take much more effort to convince people to defund the service than it would to keep the service (and the tax that everyone is already used to paying) in place.

            Anyhow, as interesting as these questions are, the concerns are ancillary to the points I raise in my post.

        • Damien S.

          Good public schools raise the values of homes in a district. So in theory one could buy a cheaper home and send your kids to a private school. Are people who buy into good districts simply chasing an illusion of free schooling, funded by high prices and property taxes which they’ll have to pay even when the kids grow up? Are they valuing being able to be around other people who can afford expensive homes and who value good schools? Or is there some other value to public schools? If it’s an illusion, it’s a very widespread one…

      • Fallon

        Government mandated information? How long ’til regulatory capture sets in and you get manufactured disconnects between what the public perceives in word/statistical meaning and what the colleges are hiding? e.g. Ask an ex-FDA lawyer what the word “Natural” means. Or when this asymmetry– yeah, the one you thought could be solved by mandates– is exploited, sometimes with good intention, to create a similar Soviet dream like the NCLB?
        Didn’t you cite public choice theory above?

        • Kevin Currie-Knight

          Yes, I did both cite public choice theory and suggested that governments may have a role to play in mandating the flow of information from potential sellers to buyers. And, certainly, I am reluctant toward much regulation because of my (nom-economist’s) understanding of public choice and the potential for regulatory capture.

          I may be wrong here, but I am not sure that all regulation would be equally susceptible to regulatory capture. The way I understand it, regulatory capture is most likely to occur the clearer it is that the regulation (or possible regulation) would benefit some firms over others (by giving them an edge or restricting competition).

          I guess I can see that government-mandated flow of information COULD benefit firms with more attractive information (if one school had REALLY impressive graduation rates and knew its main competitors didn’t, it may lobby to make that information mandatory to give to potential customers.) But that seems to me a pretty big stretch. I can equally see that government mandating of those graduation rates could motivate schools to work harder to improve their graduation rates rather than lobby the government to take ‘graduation rates’ off of the ‘required information’ list.

          I may be missing something there, as I am not an economist (but have read much of the literature on regulatory capture and rent seeking). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

          • Damien S.

            One argument is that more onerous hoops to jump through favors businesses big enough to be able to spare the effort. Like having every toy tested for lead when (if) toy lead isn’t a big problem, and small toymakers can’t afford the cost.

            OTOH if toy lead was a problem, I think regulations would be worth the hit to small businesses. Priorities!

            Being able to simply sell produce, without having to provide a nutrition label for the lettuce, would be a more everyday example.

            Of course, a government could provide testing for free, without charging for it or imposing an unfunded mandate, though that creates a special interest of the testers. That might still be less pernicious than favoring big businesses or letting asymmetric information prevent markets from operating.

          • Kevin Currie-Knight

            “One argument is that more onerous hoops to jump through favors businesses big enough to be able to spare the effort.”

            Yes, I suppose that is plausible, but I wonder how much hardship (in terms of financing or energy) would be imposed on schools by imposing a requirement that they must collect and have available (upon shopper request) information about school operations. And would this be enough to potentially harm smaller or less-well-funded schools enough that bigger schools would strategically attempt to impose such restrictions?

            Not sure, but I suggest that the costs (to schools) would not be significant, at least not enough to induce rent seeking behavior.

            “Of course, a government could provide testing for free, without charging
            for it or imposing an unfunded mandate, though that creates a special
            interest of the testers.”

            Yes, and it is also a BIG step in the direction of standardization. If governments control the tests that will be used to measure (or allow shoppers to measure) what schools are best, they indirectly control and limit what curricula schools will be tempted to use, and limit the diversity in the market.

          • Damien S.

            I was thinking product testing when I wrote that, e.g. toy lead.

            Nothing stops consumers from judging by *other* criteria; if they judge by the government tests, presumably they find those useful; if they don’t, the only losers are the taxpayers at large.

            And standardization isn’t a bad thing. Creating a common way of judging things, or a common protocol, is a big way for governments to create markets. (Who has more cell phone competition? Europe, where GSM is the mandated standard, or the US, where we have a couple of GSM providers and two other proprietary ones? Europe, AFAIK. Certainly UK pre-paid prices were ridiculously low when I was there.)

          • Fallon

            They leave graduation rates on the list but political correctness leads to “safe harboring” minorities and/or stretching out grad time to 7 years. What would graduation mean, anyway? The inability to compare intangibles such as education would be another excuse to intervene further. Government needs statistics in order to control.
            There is no such thing as a non rent-seeking moment when government is involved.
            It makes little difference about a supposed initial minor allure for rent-seeking in a mandate such as you propose for info sharing. There are consulting firms right now that specialize in getting a word or two redefined in the regs that means millions of dollars and a legal umbrella where there wasn’t one just 6 months ago. Over time– any smidgeon of government will be exploited for growth.

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  • Thrica

    I’ve done some thinking about the personal/impersonal dichotomy as it relates to markets, but it’s a subtle topic, and I’ll be interested to see how well care works as a framework to think about it. You’d better keep that promise for a future post!

    • Kevin Currie-Knight

      Thanks, Thrica. I remember reading a wonderful collection of essays by economist Paul Heyne where he said something about markets being personal when they need to be and impersonal when they need to be. For care ethicists (as I read most of them), their communitarian-inspired goal is to reverse what they see as a trend of depersonalization, particularly in relationships where care is given (one reason, for instance, they favor localized over national governments as ‘agents of care’, and small class sizes in schools is an awareness that personal connections are much more likely on a local level and in small groups). But to Heyne’s point (and I’m not sure many care ethicists would really deny this), some services don’t need to be personal to be effective (I certainly can’t know everyone involved in making and selling the products I buy, and the economy is better for it) or even more effective the less personal they are (judges are best to recuse themselves if they know one or both parties in a case, or it might be more awkward for a surgeon to cut into someone she cares for than someone she doesn’t know).

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