Nowadays, neoliberalism and populism are the two dominant narratives in the public discussion of social, political and economic issues. Even those who, in America and Europe, identify themselves as progressives, are forced to choose between the idea that markets have the monopoly of truth (like Tony Blair at the beginning of this century and many American Democrats), and an irrational, rhetorical and merely emotional approach to social issues. In this article I would like to propose the establishment of a market for values, that may have also a political relevance in creating an alternative to both neoliberalism and populism.

These two narratives are much closer to each other than one may think. The first reason is that each of them uses extensively the other to legitimize itself. The greed of bankers becomes a reason to vote “for the people”, even if this means constraining civil and political rights. And the risks posed by autocrats are often mentioned by the elites as a reason to avoid any strong change in the current social and economic institutions.

But, beyond this aspect, neoliberalism and populism have some assumptions in common. First, they both accept the prevalence to the economy over other dimensions of life: on the one hand, freedom is considered mainly in economic terms, as the right to start a business, enjoy wealth and consume goods, while, on the other hand, populists often claim that the establishment only wants to get richer, excluding ordinary people from decent standards of living.

The second dimension that is shared by neoliberalism and populism is individualism. Neoliberals base their prescriptions on the Hayekian idea that each individual can make the best decisions on her or his own, and that he or she will do so, as long as that person’s freedom is not limited. And while populists highlight the need for a radical change in politics, they never encourage citizens to form associations aimed at cooperating in order to pursue some common goals. Moreover, both neoliberalism and populism consider dissent dangerous, thereby fostering conformity. They both thrive in a mass society, whose perils Hannah Arendt has clearly highlighted.

Now like in the 1930s, these characteristics are the outcome of instrumental rationality, the paradigm that Max Weber counterposed to value rationality. Economics, which dominates every other social discipline, has lost its original nature of a moral science, reducing most of its own assumptions to the quest for profit and utility. Not only is there a polytheism of values, but values are also subordinated to the role played by individuals in the social fabric. In my book Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations as Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times, I have defined functional autonomy as the condition whereby an individual performs social roles (consuming or producing certain goods, voting for a given party, having a certain relational style with other individuals) on the basis of some moral, organizational or cultural values. By contrast, when there is no functional autonomy, values are only a mirror of social roles: an individual judges reality merely on the basis of his or her short-term interests. This situation makes it impossible to reach that veil of ignorance under which, according to John Rawls, we should choose principles of justice.

However, when society lacks this kind of autonomy, then it is only a sum of atoms, not a community. Indeed, if my values are simply a consequence of my social role, then I will have no interest in discussing them with other individuals. Therefore, I will not contribute to any public debate regarding the notion of justice, and a few values shared by the entire society will only be instrumental to its survival.

Against this backdrop, I have proposed the establishment of a market for moral, organizational and cultural values, as an instrument to foster functional autonomy and a sense of community. Jürgen Habermas has proposed a discourse ethics, and John Rawls a theory of justice based on an original position, both assuming that individuals can contribute to the choice of general principles without taking into account their direct, immediate, concrete interests. However, I find that the market economy, with its Weberian iron cage, is such a dominant dimension that ethics should use the markets even to foster autonomy, rather than abstract from them or fight an impossible battle against them.

In a market for values individuals, companies and local communities would exchange documents, each of which would list the benefits that have been experienced through applying a given moral, organizational or cultural value. Values would include: social justice, inclusivity towards minorities, propensity to innovation, environmentalism. The experiences would be certified on the basis of quantitative indicators decided by law. For instance, companies might add an experience to a document referred to environmentalism after reducing CO2 emissions by a certain percentage; individuals would have the chance to do the same after donating a certain amount of money to “green charities”; local communities may add an experience after increasing green areas by a certain percentage. Quantitative indicators for social justice would include, for instance, a certain reduction of inequality in local communities and of wage disparities in companies.

The price of the experiences referred to in each value would be determined by supply and demand, and the price of each document would be proportional to the number of the experiences listed in it. It would be possible to exchange each document with documents referring to other values, or with goods and services.

The main function of a market for values would be to provide an economic incentive to adopt values that are independent from one’s current social role. This incentive would be the possibility to resell a document at a price higher than the purchase price, which would be possible thanks to the addition of new experiences to the document and to an increase in the demand of the experiences.

This kind of transactions would underscore the role of values as a form of capital. Indeed, social justice and environmentalism, inclusivity and multiculturalism would be considered as resources that are able concretely to inspire some personal and professional activities. But, in order to allow each company or individual to choose freely which kind of quantitative indicator and experience is more appropriate to pursue a given value, there would be the need to overcome the dominant paradigm of our time: division of labor. This would be, in absolute terms, a contribution to defining the meaning of a value and its relative role in terms of other values, something that goes much beyond the activities of the animal laborans as described by Hannah Arendt in her analysis of an active life.

Money, the universal means of exchange, can be used to purchase any good or service exactly because it does not take into account the specific preferences of buyers and sellers with regard to what is desirable for society. However, this means that money does not foster any circulation of experiences among individuals and companies. Yet, if a value such as environmentalism was used as a means of exchange, a company that has, for instance, reduced CO2 emissions would motivate also other companies to do the same, or to undertake activities that are beneficial for the environment, which is something that money saved on carbon taxes cannot do. Each value would be a list of potential and, in the documents, actual experiences, and this market would allow a cooperative search for truth among all individual, companies and local communities involved in the transactions. Politics, in deciding all the quantitative indicators that are relevant for each value, would reconnect all persons and companies interested in pursuing some general goals, beyond the specific sectors of society to which they belong.

Neoliberalism relies on market transactions that are presumably value-neutral and on the formal irrelevance of moral, organizational and cultural principles, while populism reduces values to rhetorical expedients in an effort to discursively convince others. Through a market for values, an alternative to both narratives would become viable, together with a return of economics to ethics and more sustainable policies.