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Putting Humanity Back In 'The Market'

Gavin Clabaugh / Flickr / Creative Commons

Maybe most remarkable about the term “the market,” is the incredible variety of ideas it invokes.

The market, at its most mundane, conjures an image of a grocery store with its rainbow wash, the visual signatures of myriad brands all competing for our eyes, and for the dollars that follow. We also retain this cultural memory: the market as a place for basket-weavers and growers to hock their wares, for handmade rugs to rub up against stacks of kohlrabi.

Today’s farmer’s markets perhaps best resemble this usage, a picture agreeably old-fashioned and harkening back to a time before the cold and antiseptic image with which I began.

But economists and bankers, and many politicians too, use the term in a much more abstract, and even mystical, way. For them, the market points to an idealized realm in which services and goods, labor and capital, move about without outside interference as needs and supplies both ebb and flow.

In its idealization, this way of thinking about the market loses its fundamentally human nature. Abstracted thus, with people’s jobs and opportunities, what they’ve made and sold, as subject to what Adam Smith passingly referred to as an “invisible hand,” we fail to see the real tears that come with a crashing career, the real faces of fatigue as people work for what they have and work at what they have to give.

In fact, the hands that move the market are not invisible at all. They’re attached to the very real bodies of everyone who works and everyone who wants to work. They’re attached to everyone who contributes to what gets made and bought and sold.

Only by repopulating the market with real people, the people we know, can we begin to see how the decisions we make affect everyone else the market touches.