Credit: Creative Commons/The Value Web

Rarely are we invited to consider ethical questions of right and wrong in matters of economic development, particularly in times of economic fragility, when jobs and investment are in high demand.

But as any society debates core economic and policy ideas, the battle for moral leadership matters. And so, at this critical time, it is vital that progressives reclaim some of that language.

For too long, we’ve been told that our values must take a backseat to the imperatives of economic growth and the associated promises of job creation; that what best serves the interests of large corporations will ultimately benefit the rest of us.

It’s wrong to presume that a moral economy would necessarily be one with fewer decent jobs. In practice, transitioning to a carbon-free economy will entail tens of thousands of well-paying jobs. The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time, economically, socially, and ethically. Infrastructure decisions we make now will last for decades, and therefore need to be made with deep deliberation, mindful of the type of future into which we are tying our children.

Let’s pause to explore what we mean by a “moral economy.” It is intertwined with notions of a “fair” or “just” or “democratic” economy, but its ethical dimensions reach further. It’s not merely concerned with distribution, but also with what we choose to produce and invest in, and the nature of the jobs that result.

We offer this simple definition: A moral economy is one in which people do not feel they have to sacrifice their values, harm human dignity or compromise ecological health in order to achieve economic security.

This definition is as much a cultural shift as it is a policy one. It’s not about public vs. private, so much as reconsidering the balance, and bringing a new lens to the economic planning that both governments and businesses undertake.

All economies (or economic systems) seek to deal with the same basic questions: How is the production of goods and services to be determined? How should those goods and services be distributed? Who or what commands the allocation of scarce resources? How should the income and wealth pies be sliced?

Too often, economics masquerades as a pure and objective science, and free-market economic policies are presented as “value-free”. But nothing could be further from the truth. Economics is about policy choices, and produces winners and losers; values are always at play.

So what more specifically would a moral economy look like, and what differentiates it from our current system?

  • Jobs: In a moral economy, our livelihoods better align with our best ideals for ourselves. Imagine a society that places value on service and caring – for children, the elderly, and those with disabilities – and this is reflected in people’s wages. The economy provides community-sustaining, family-supporting jobs; jobs that don’t separate families, that don’t endanger workers or harm others, and that provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Does this mean we will always love everything about our jobs? Of course not. But it means we can feel proud of the work we do, and pleased if our own children choose to follow in our path.
  • Ecological Justice: In a moral economy, natural resources are not depleted and the commons is not despoiled. Economic development is not driven by a “gold rush” mentality, but is thoughtful and deliberate about how scarce resources are used. The need for income in the present does not penalize the wellbeing of future generations.
  • Indigenous Sovereignty: In a moral economy, Aboriginal rights and title are respected, and we strive to honour the commitments made to those who first occupied this land. These rights are not theoretical, but instead are given a place of privilege in economic planning. The upholding of Indigenous Sovereignty is not only at play in matters of specific resource development projects. It is a shift in how we jointly make broader economic and social policy decisions.
  • Equality: In a moral economy, we do not abide poverty, and policies are put in place to lessen rather than increase the inequality divide by income, gender, and ethnicity. Extreme inequality is actively discouraged; low-wage work is appreciated and properly compensated, and conversely, high-end salaries are not competitively bid into the stratosphere. The goal is true social mobility, rather than one’s life chances being determined by the lottery of one’s birth. 
  • Shared Good: In a moral economy, the health and security of each family is mainly protected by enhancing the wellbeing of the entire society, a principle at the heart of public health care. In such an economy, many of our core needs – for housing, childcare, education, healthcare, retirement security – are provided collectively. This reality allows us to escape the financial treadmill, and liberates us to take risks and embrace necessary change, particularly in the face of the climate crisis. In a moral economy we seek to uphold a social contract based on mutual responsibility, sharing and cooperation, rather than competition, hoarding and accumulation. 
  • Meaningful: Imagine an economy where a “good life” is not confused with materialism. Excessive wealth is not celebrated and coveted. In a moral economy, we narrow the gap between what has market value and what has social value; wages and prices reflect the true worth of things, rather than being determined by irrational or perverse market forces. Instead of adhering to a shallow measure of income or economic activity, we measure success by people’s happiness, health and wellbeing.

While we are often a jumble of contradictory values, for most of us, this kind of an economy probably sounds pretty good. You may not agree with all the above, but core elements of it. The problem is that too many of us have been convinced that these values, while desirable, are unrealistic.

Perhaps a helpful re-framing is to understand that our current task is to set a transition course from our present economy, in which these values are too often suppressed.

Credit: Creative Commons/Woodleywonderworks

Our moral legacy, along with the planet we leave to our children, will be determined by the choices we make on questions such as these: Do we want more fossil fuel pipelines, or more public transit and inter-city high-speed passenger trains? A few more jobs in the export of raw commodities, or many more jobs in energy retrofitting buildings? More investment in port infrastructure and gas liquification, or more investment in building social infrastructure such as low-income housing, child care, and residential care for frail seniors? More subsidies for fracking and mining (conducted by some of the most profitable corporations on the planet), or more supports for clean energy development? Do we want jobs outside people’s home communities, or a re-localization of manufacturing and food production?

Rising to the climate challenge represents a massive economic task, much like our society experienced when it moved to a war footing in WWI and WWII. It is going to involve billions of dollars of investment and tens of thousands of jobs. At issue is whether the transition will be undertaken in a just and thoughtful manner, if sacrifices will be shared, and how we will pay for it. The transition can be financed if we appropriately tax those industries that are depleting our carbon budget and those who are making phenomenal wealth.

The wartime comparison is apt. In previous eras, we did not leave so much economic decision-making to the private market. Rather, we engaged in more deliberate economic planning. We appreciated the role of government infrastructure investment. We recognized that resources were scarce and the task at hand was urgent, and allocated resources and guided investments accordingly. The point here is not that there is no role for the private profit-seeking sector, only that we need to get the balance right.

Further good news is that much of our economy already reflects this transition. The extractive mining, oil and gas industries represent only a small share of our GDP, and an even smaller share of employment. Conversely, there are entire industries where an alignment already exists between what has social value and what has market value, sectors where we care for one another, or teach, or create art, or otherwise engage in activities that enrich our lives with a limited ecological footprint.

And more is achievable in the near term. We can expedite the transition by investing in universal childcare, social housing, home and residential care for seniors, and green infrastructure.

We should have high expectations of our current leaders. Deferring the hard moral questions to the future will not do. Leadership matters – it shifts the debate, it re-orients attention and activity. But the challenge is to us all to bring a moral lens to economic planning. While the transition may involve a degree of uncertainty and economic sacrifice, the outcome can be a better life, with more economic security, where our needs are met, and we are able to feel proud of the legacy we are leaving future generations.


Christine Boyle is a community organizer and the director of Spirited Social Change, exploring the intersections between values and our work for a better world. Seth Klein is BC Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.


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