A Market for Values and its role in reconciling capitalism and democracy, economics and ethics

In a guest contribution for Forum New Economy, Marco Senatore, Senior Civil Servant at Italy's Department of the Treasury discusses his notion of a market for values.


 The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted the implications not only of choices such as cuts to health services, but also of a problematic relation with the environment. Several analysts have underscored that the temporary reduction in CO2 emissions, connected with lockdown measures, may be followed by their fast increase in the near future. Environmental emergencies, and in particular climate change, are a grim reality. But climate change is only the final outcome of a social and economic model analysed by Max Weber in its bureaucratic, formally rational structure, as well as by Karl Marx, the Frankfurt School and Hannah Arendt. The quest for jobs, social status, money and possessions has become the very essence of economic growth and of our notion of welfare. But the more we adopt rational schemes only to apply them to a limited part of our individual and collective life, the more we remain inside an iron cage that prevents us from doing what would be good for the whole humanity.

Capitalism implies the need for most individuals and companies to compete with others in order to have access to money, via labour and capital. This fact alone implies that values, i.e. our relation with the whole of reality, as notions of good and bad, useful or useless, are often subordinated to what we do for a living. If we add to this picture the hyperspecialisation of professions and the systematic division of labour, the set of values that a firm or an individual stands for is very limited.

Therefore, our societies are not communities. As most individuals and firms know that their notion of good is only confined to their particular interest, there is no incentive to compare values, to change them, to spread them. The only tool that society has to know the preferences of its own members is represented by polls and elections (in order to decide who will hold power) and consumer choices (that contribute to determine which firms will accumulate profit). But elections and purchases only take place when individuals have already decided on what is best for them, without any public and open debate about the reasons behind these choices. This happens precisely because we start from the assumption that we should merely pursue our own interests as defined by our position in the world.

Meanwhile, as argued by Niklas Luhmann, societies have no centre, because politics does not provide any synthesis of the different requests coming from other spheres, as it only offers binding decisions that stabilise the expectations of social actors. Both neoliberal and populist narratives leave this reality unchanged.

The very destruction of the basic prerequisite for human existence (i.e. nature) is only the “natural” consequence of a system missing also the basic prerequisite for the existence of a community: the ability to choose values as something more than a mere consequence of one’s role in the social fabric.

The prevalence of instrumental rationality, concerned with the choice of the best means for subjective and relative aims, has made of politics only a sequence of elections, deprived of any deliberative dimension, i.e. of any public discourse about what makes up a good life. The marginalisation of value-based rationality has also deprived economics of any strong link with ethics.

Against this backdrop, a market for values would offer the chance to get utility and profit not from the mere exchange of objects and reified, limited, atomistic social functions, like in today’s markets. A market for values would make it possible to get utility and profit from one’s holistic, freely chosen relation with society and human nature as a whole. This market would offer an economic incentive to choose values, before determining one’s social function. Which would imply fostering individual autonomy – meant as the condition whereby our role as consumers of certain goods, voters for a certain party or workers in a given sector is the outcome of our moral, organisational and cultural values, rather than the factor which defines these values.

In a nutshell, cities (and other local communities), firms and individuals would be able to exchange their experiences highlighting the reputational, economic and social benefits of principles such as environmentalism, social justice and inclusivity.

It would be possible to exchange documents, each of which would list the experiences referred to a given value. Those would be certified on the basis of quantitative indicators, decided by law (at the national level) or international agreement, such as a given reduction in CO2 emissions and a certain level of investments in negative emissions technologies (for firms), a minimum increase in green areas (for local communities) and a given amount of donations to green charities (for individuals) in the case of environmentalism. Indicators referred to social justice may include a given reduction in wage dispersion (in companies) and in Gini index (in local communities).

The price of a document would be proportional to the number of experiences listed in it, and the price of the experiences referred to each value would be determined by demand and supply. Each document would be exchangeable with others referred to other values, as well as with goods and services – not with money.

For instance, a city that has made big progress in fostering green jobs may exchange its experiences with a city that has reduced inequality, thereby improving social cohesion.

The economic incentive to take part in these transactions would be the possibility to transfer a document at a price (in terms of other documents or of goods and services) higher than the purchase price, which would be possible thanks to two factors: the addition of new experiences – after having freely chosen the kind of quantitative target to be pursued – and a possible increase in the price of the experiences.  Values would be a form of capital, able to inspire and guide economic activities in the same way as money is able to do that.

Welfare economics shows that, in order to go beyond the notion of Pareto optimality – and, of course, paternalist concepts of social welfare -, knowing value judgments held by individuals is essential, in order to make it possible to have interpersonal comparisons of utility. From this point of view, a market for values would allow society to assess how much the allocation of physical goods is consistent with the distribution of beliefs. But it would also give these beliefs the role of resource.

Michael Sandel has rightly underscored the dangers of a society where everything is up for sale, and where certain moral and civic goods, that markets do not honour and money cannot buy, are overlooked. The notion of a market for values is about creating economic exchanges that do not hamper, but rather foster the achievement of these moral and civic goods.

The world knows how much popular are politicians, and what is the price of any good produced. Only determining how much solidarity and other values are worthy, we could be free from the duopoly power-money that rules our lives to the detriment of authentically deliberative democracies and inclusive, rational communities.

About the Author: Marco, an Italian civil servant, was born in Genoa (Italy) in 1975. After graduating in Political Science at the Sapienza University of Rome, he specialized in financial markets and the internationalization of businesses. He has worked at the Ministry of Economy and Finance of Italy and at the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund. Marco is the author of  “Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times,” published in 2014. He has also written several articles about politics and economy. The views expressed in his blog posts are strictly personal.


  • Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Second ed.). University of Chicago Press, 1958.
  • Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, English translation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
  • Karl Marx, Das Kapital [1867], Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, translation by Ben Fowkes, Penguin Classics, 1990.
  • Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
  • Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell; 1987.
  • Marco Senatore, Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times, Xlibris 2014.
  • Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, T. Parsons (trans.), A. Giddens (intro), London: Routledge, 1905.

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