Free Markets

11 Jun

Free market idealists rail against the government, but the irony is that civilized free markets can’t exist without the government.  There has to be either a central government or a set of workable moral precepts strictly internalized by all players in the market.  People are not going to play by imaginary rules of conduct just because it sounds good on paper.  It hardly means that more government is always better or that everything the government does is perfect, but to pin the evil on any particular ideological bogey is to miss the greater point.  Virtue in complex social systems is analogous to health in the human body in that there are many paths to ruin.  The sound of a particular dissonant guitar may be blamed on a poorly tuned B-string.  But the general problem of dissonant guitars is much more complicated and cannot be localized to any individual string.

“Bad things come from demons!”  So demons are to blame when a person stumbles, gets sick, is hit by lightning, etc.  Demons preserve a certain sense of meaning and control in the world, do they not?  Bad things must have a parsimonious reason behind them which links them all.  Dark intentions!

If corporations were set completely free and the government just sat back, the corporations would become the new government.  Why wouldn’t they?  It would be in their self-interest to do so.  Maybe the only thing to stop it would be the ongoing dependence of any given corporation on the services of other corporations.  Anyway, what magic force is there to prevent corporations from appealing to the self-interest of the bureaucrats who operate the government?  What is to stop corporations or other entities from distorting the flows of information in the economy?

In a free-for-all, monopoly and collusion would be the norm.  Chemicals and other nasty externalities would be less regulated.  These institutions would begin to lose public accountability and so would become less: relevant, inventive, civil, etc.  They’d create barriers to entry for potential competitors.  We’d probably begin seeing commercials saying things like, “smoking is great for your health!”  As stated by Sofia Vergara, right?  She loves men who smoke in this hypothetical world.

The best thing about free market ideology is its recognition of the need to keep power honest, relevant, and coordinated.  A given business is only supposed to be making a profit if they’re providing a competitively priced output in demand by customers.  If a company fails to do this, they will go bankrupt.  The government does not share this discipline, and so government tends to be inefficient, irrelevant, a tool of corruption, etc.  So goes the argument.

The argument is correct, but it is also too specific.  The word ‘government’ should be replaced by ‘malignant concentration of power’.  Blaming ‘government’ is a tactic of rhetoric.  It makes people feel like they have the ultimate solution in hand.  If only the fools would get out of the way!  We know how to build paradise, but no one will let us!  However, many of the so-called fools are no fools at all.  The situation is more complex than its usual ideological portrayal lets on.  Of course some of them really are fools.

The trouble is that hardly anyone bothers to make explicit arguments against ideologies from Marxism to extreme Libertarianism.  They just shrug and say, “oh, use your common sense!”  When an ideologue does produce evidence, it will almost always be something ripped out of the processes on which it is really dependent.  In practice, things are usually complicated and dirty when compared to the pristine ideals.  Ideologies drift in fluffy conceptual paradise, and their adherents cherry-pick examples.  God knows philosophy is full of that.

Science and engineering are revered because they are disciplined by practice at the ground floor.  They get down to the primitive index and seek to eliminate hand-waving and loopholes.  If something isn’t working as expected, physicists are trained to find the concrete and airtight reason for the surprise.  They can’t just point fingers and let fly the spittle.  In idealism, one can and must lean on rhetoric.  If something goes wrong, just fault the bogey.  There’s a big bonus for a convincing story.  Ideology has much in common with stage magic; both depend on guided attention and a ban on inconvenient forensics.

I feel dirty even writing this.  It makes me want to study science again.    Science doesn’t give a reason to live, but it serves a critical role.  A solid metal hammer makes a poor flute, but it’s still a useful thing for a carpenter.  The problem only begins when context is lost.


Overall, the free market issue is a great case study for philosophy.  Philosophy is constantly tasked with mediating between ideologies gone wild.  Science itself is not beyond the reach of philosophy.  I suspect some results can be had by exploiting the tension between the practice of science and the sufficient conditions thereof.  A possible resolution to the ‘nihilistic scientist’ situation is an invocation of the fact that the practice of science always depended on initiative to begin with and was never really passive or merely an act of remote observation.  Scientists may feel they have discovered a meaningless universe, but that conclusion is itself a value judgment presenting as absolute fact.  A certain flavor of initiative, in other words.  They expected to find meaning ‘out there’ as one finds a planet or a star.  I bet that’s not how it works.

However, this last bit is very speculative and incomplete.


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