The weakening of democracy in our world is the outcome of the lack of a shared sense of community. I refer in particular to the difficulty for individuals to feel that they belong to society, to make a difference in it, to meet their needs through politics, and to have a shared emotional connection with other citizens. It is often difficult for a nation to have a shared perception of issues such as climate change and reach an agreement on how to deal with them. This is caused in part by poor autonomy of individuals. Autonomy, and democracy in turn, could be strengthened by establishing a market for moral, organizational and cultural values.

The weakening of democracy and community

Liberal democracy is in retreat in several countries: Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland. It is also going through an identity crisis in the United States and United Kingdom. In Italy in the last year there has been a sharp increase in divisiveness on issues such as migration, also due to the rhetoric of the then Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini.

For instance, Indian society features thousands of castes. Inequality, already high, is on the rise. Moreover, globally, India spends among the lowest shares of its national income on basic services such as public health and education. However, as argued by retired historian Aditya Mukherjee, India under prime minister Narendra Modi is experiencing a “majoritarian Hindu communalism”, as predicted by Nehru. Indian society has become much more divided between religious groups, castes and genres.

The United States, starting around the presidency of Barack Obama, has also known increased political polarization. As argued by Marc Dunkelman in his book “ The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community”, voters are less willing to compromise. Moreover, inequality is a huge problem for social cohesion. With Donald Trump in the White House, polarization has reached record levels. In November 2018 voter turnout increased significantly among young adult ages 18 to 29, but it was still at 36 percent. And only a third of Americans born after 1980 consider democracy essential.

American conservatism fostered the idea that communities tend to endanger individual freedom. Theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr previously argued, in a similar way, that human groups cannot achieve the level of sympathy and consideration for others that can be found in individuals.

Community and individual autonomy

Contrary to Niebuhr, I believe that the main reason for the lack of community is precisely the poor autonomy of individuals. By autonomy, and in particular functional autonomy, I mean the condition whereby moral, organizational and cultural values do not simply mirror social roles, but they rather influence the choice of personal and professional activities.

Nowadays, the losers of globalization often become the people who support populist policies. And those who endorse progressive values may often find it difficult to spread them across society. But when values are simply instrumental to one’s short-term material interests, individuals are not motivated to compare their own beliefs with those held by others. For instance, if someone works in the coal industry, he may oppose green policies because he and his family could be negatively affected by some new legislation. He will not easily change his mind on the subject. This frame of mind reduces the set of narratives and values that are shared as the outcome of an inclusive, discursive and rational process.

William James famously wrote that “ The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community ”. Unlike ego-driven individualism, an authentic, autonomy-based individuality is not only compatible with social cohesion, but it is the prerequisite for any strong community. The attempt to reconcile individual and community is also strictly linked with the need for a return of economics to ethics, as wished by Amartya Sen.

Capitalism is based on what Max Weber called instrumental rationality (a paradigm endorsed by both neoliberalism and populism): each individual goes to the market (and to the electoral cabin) to get those means that are able to pursue his or her goals. But there is no public discussion on which goals are intrinsically able to make life worthy.

Capitalism has to change. Our economic systems can only become fully compatible with democracy if the process of capital accumulation incorporates the free and autonomous expression of individuality, i.e. the choice of moral, organizational and cultural values that can connect us with the world and contribute to build a community.

A Market for Values

A Market for Values would make it possible to foster such change, as it would offer an economic incentive to consider some values unconditional. How would this market function? Individuals, companies and local governments would exchange documents, each of which would describe experiences highlighting the benefits of a given moral, organizational or cultural value. Values may include environmentalism, solidarity, propensity to innovation, social justice, or inclusivity towards minorities. After purchasing a document, it would be possible to add one or more new experiences to it before reselling it.

For instance, a given company A may have experienced better reputation thanks to the decision to innovate, and in particular to develop a new material that causes lower carbon emissions. The company A may describe these benefits (in terms of higher sales) in a document, together with the kind of investment that it has undertaken. Then A may transfer the document to a company B, in exchange for a document that refers to another value, for instance inclusivity towards minorities. After analyzing the strategy undertaken by A, the company B may decide to innovate through offering products that are easy to install and using natural materials. After experiencing benefits such as better reputation and higher demand linked with savings on energy bills, the company B may add its own experience to the document that it has received from A, transfer it to a company C, and so on. Transactions would also be possible between companies and individuals, between individuals and local communities, or between local communities and companies.

This is an example of how one document would look:

Experiences would be certified — and added to the documents — on the basis of quantitative indicators decided by law, such as, in the case of environmentalism, a minimum percentage of investments in renewables (as a binding benchmark for companies), a certain increase in green areas (for local communities) and a given amount of donations to green charities (for individuals). Indicators referred to social justice may include a given reduction in wage dispersion (in companies) and in Gini index (in local communities). Inclusivity would be certified through indicators such as a minimum share of ethnic minorities in the labor force.

The experiences referred to each value would be priced on the basis of demand and supply. It would be possible to know the initiatives and their respective benefits only after purchasing the document. The price of each document would be proportional to the number of experiences listed on it. A document would be exchangeable with those referred to other values as well as with goods and services.

The economic incentive to enter the market of values would be the possibility to resell a given document at a higher price than purchase price. This would be made possible by both the addition of new experiences to the document (meaning autonomy) and by the ability to forecast an increase in the price of the experiences (meaning sensitivity to social preferences).

Exchanging values would make it possible to exercise autonomy, and, as a consequence, get out of the alienating paradigm of division of labor. Indeed, a person or a company would be able to choose a value, decide which kind of quantitative target should be aimed at and, therefore, the kind of experiences to be added.

This market would also make it possible to assess how much society really values justice over economic growth, environmentalism over innovation, and so on. Lawmakers, in deciding the indicators for each value, would reconnect different sectors of society, thereby regaining their function of true leaders. And capitalism would be deeply reformed, because capital would include moral, organizational and cultural values, not only monetary and physical inputs.

This proposal is contained in my book Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times (Xlibris 2014), available here.

Marco Senatore has worked at the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund and at the Ministry of Economy and Finance of Italy. He writes on pressing social and economic issues, published, among others, by openDemocracy.

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