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Free Market Morals

April 29, 2014

Sometime this weekend remarks from Donald Sterling (an old white man) who owns the Los Angeles Clippers (a professional basketball team) made it into the news outlets. The remarks Mr. Sterling made were racist and the outrage was inevitable. It looks like this outrage is translating into real action – Mr. Sterling has been fined and banned from the NBA.

So far this is merely another incident in which a public figure displays that racism is not dead in America (albeit in a pretty odd form here – in the recording Mr. Sterling makes his comments to someone who identifies herself as being of black and Mexican descent). However, where this story gets interesting for me and links into a larger theme worth treating on this blog is the response to this incident.

Predictably, some people have been upset that Mr. Sterling is getting raked over the coals in what has been largely a trial-by-media (although the NBA issued their decision after an investigation that was presumably more rigorous). Since I’m fairly interested in how people perceive and react to issues of race I stopped to read a blog article critical of all of this. It turned out to be an awful article based largely on ad hominem attacks on political figures the author didn’t like (and whose sole connection to the incident was to comment on it) but the relevant core of the article can be summarized like this: Mr. Sterling is a morally-atrocious man. Contrary to the language of many reports Mr. Sterling is married (although he and his wife are estranged) and the woman who is speaking on the recording is his mistress. Mr. Sterling’s mistress is thirty-one while Mr. Sterling is eighty which suggests that they have a sugar-daddy relationship, something that both I and the article author think violates the moral rules of relationships. Mr. Sterling has admitted before to hiring women for sex (although this seems to have been a defense against a claim by another mistress that they had a real relationship) and his wife and his current mistress (perhaps ex-mistress now!) are involved in an ugly legal battle. None of this is new and Mr. Sterling has never been censured for it in any way. However, the minute he makes a racist comment he is jumped on. The author of the blog article goes on to say that this is because the only thing liberals actually dislike is intolerance, a familiar conservative argument about moral decay in society and the specter of a rather Orwellian brand of tolerance.

To be fair to the blog author there is some weirdness in the case. I actually had to do a bit of research for this article to figure out what Mr. Sterling said as the radio report I heard on the way home from work and articles I had seen before merely said he had made “racist remarks”. Not all racist remarks are equal though. Did he say that black people made him uncomfortable or go on a thirty-minute tirade about how he hated black people in which he used every racial slur ever invented? The first sort of statement is racist but a lot of white people born in 1934 feel that way and it’s probably good that they admit it as a first step towards getting over it. The second is totally out of bounds. However, in what appears to be politically-correct self-censoring Mr. Sterling’s actual comments were rather hard to find. For those interested they consisted of him expressing his dislike of his mistress being public about hanging out with minorities (despite the fact that she is one and that several of these minorities are star athletes).

However, it’s not a liberal blindness to all sins but intolerance that drives this incident. Instead, we are witnessing the morals of the free market. (This alternate moral system is what I think makes this incident worth discussing here.)

Take Mr. Sterling’s infidelity and associated sexual sins. Who do they impact economically? Mr. Sterling (who has lost money to lawsuits because of this), Mr. Sterling’s wife, and Mr. Sterling’s mistresses. For the Los Angeles Clippers and the NBA it’s unclear that Mr. Sterling swapping out his wife for a younger model impacts the bottom line much. Maybe his wife doesn’t go to Clippers games anymore but I doubt she paid for her own seat back when she did. (Of course there’s a case to be made that Mr. Sterling’s own economics are part of the team’s economics since he owns the team but no NBA team owner wants the NBA to have power to crack down on them for buying one too many expensive cars or investing in risky stock.)

Now take Mr. Sterling’s recent comments. Who do they impact? Well, the Clippers are professional basketball in the United States. Even without doing any research I can tell you that most of the players are probably black, the coach is likely to be black (he is, I learned this accidentally from another article), and that many of the fans are probably black (see this article for the best you’ll get to verification of that). If the coach and players think the owner dislikes them because of their skin color the team will suffer (and teams that play poorly lose fans and revenue). If the fans think that the team owner dislikes them because of their skin color they may shift their allegiance elsewhere or at least cut down spending on team memorabilia and games.

So why did the NBA act against Mr. Sterling? Because doing nothing would cost them money. Why didn’t the NBA act against Mr. Sterling before? Because his sins didn’t cost them money. The key here is a distinction between private and public sin. We have long recognized that public figures have private failings that are off the table (except that the classification is fluid enough that almost nothing is really off the table) and public failings that they can be legitimately criticized for. In this case Mr. Sterling’s sins would all be either private or public. It’s hard to claim that his rather public affair is somehow more private than his conversation with his mistress. However, there’s a new definition of private and public in action here. Mr. Sterling’s affairs are economically private. Mr. Sterling’s conversation with his mistress was economically private until it got leaked at which point it jumped out into an economically-public space and earned him censure.

There certainly has been a decay in public morals in the sense that the US no longer has anything like a single hegemonic moral system that all people either pay lip service to or have to continually justify deviating from. However, what is rising to replace the old system is an economic system. If you offend your customers that’s bad. If you don’t it’s not. Frankly, this is a terrible way to do morals. It’s a lot more worrying to me than a supposed liberal conspiracy to crush us all under some politically-correct jackboot. (To be sure, I think that the liberal focus on being PC is frequently over-reaching and often under-achieving at the same time. However, I also think a lot of people feel that way and that this will limit how far the movement will go.)

I don’t have any particularly stirring final words for this article. There’s another moral system in the marketplace of ideas and it’s a natural for marketplaces. Given how poorly most people do moral thought (i.e., they do not think about morals but follow a crowd and their emotions) free market morals are probably here to stay. It’s worth identifying and rejecting that system. (Even when one thinks free market morals may have accidentally hit upon the right answer.)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    April 30, 2014 8:30 am

    I think much of the problem is “free market morals” are never really codified. Whatever gets picked up by the public as feeling “controversial” is accepted to be, and any backlash is deflected away from the larger underlying system. (Perhaps I’m cynical, but I think the “it’s political correctness/liberal morals/etc.” line is a feature, not a bug, for those using it–you can soundly criticize the immorality you most dislike while still taking advantage of the system when you need it.)

    There was an interesting article in Time that supports your case: This isn’t even the first time Sterling’s racism has been public or even economic, but it’s never been a high-profile PR problem supported by lurid details.

    • Eric permalink
      April 30, 2014 10:38 pm

      Sure – not only are free market morals never codified they are just as prone to trends and lapses as any product. Once a critical mass jumps in to denounce someone that’s it, there’s no going back. However, if the moral outrage product doesn’t take off it dies off.


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