From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Wed Jan 25 2006 - 16:12:40 EST
Jerry, What are the freedoms that are created by markets? It's surprising to hear that from an American! That's a jolly good question, but it is a big, wide-ranging topic that takes a long time to answer, and I don't have sufficient time to do just to it just now beynd a quick mail (incidentally, if anybody knows where my bicycle keys are, I'd like them back). I went to the supermarket yesterday, and freely bought the foods I wanted to eat. Hundreds of millions of people don't have that freedom. I look around my dingy room and I see all the things that I could never have acquired, without market trade spanning the whole globe and a vast network of cooperation between people linked by trade. Here in Amsterdam people do cherish their market freedoms, and there are markets now of type you would scarcely believe. Here's just a thumbnail sketch though, of my trend of thought. The basic thesis I offered was that markets don't imply any particular morality of their own, beyond the requirement to settle transactions. This provides a source of freedom of choice (as Milton Friedman highlighted) and personal autonomy, the ability to develop/emancipate oneself in a self-directed way according to one's own good judgement, including choosing one's own morality in the relations of giving and taking, getting and receiving, sharing and excluding (in religion, this is articulated spiritually in terms of the choice of following God or following the devil and so on, the option of sinning, or walking the path of righteousness and so on). The argument holds, so long as you have money in pocket, or at least credit cards and the possibility of "trading up". This aspect is defended by those who defend the market principle, believing it will result in a superior allocation of resources. In reality of course, that may be far from being the case (the chosen moralities might be bad ones), but there is that potential at least. The argument easily becomes circular also, i.e. the fact that you have markets MEANS that you have a better allocation of resources. Of course, precisely because markets don't imply any morality of their own beyond settling transactions, an enforcible juridical-moral framework of rights and obligations is also practically necessary, which in genuine liberal thought is however viewed as only setting constraints or limits, without specifying exactly how people should be, that's a perpetual debate, till the end of history. Suppose you don't have market mediation, then, effectively, you give more decision-making power to some people over other people influencing the allocation of resources, i.e. the allocation of resources becomes more directly political, and more directly influenced by power relations, according to some dominating morality or rules/norms. In the extreme centralised case, you have some kind of totalitarian bureaucracy or military dictatorship prescribing and enforcing norms for how people should be. In a more democratic case, you have the rule of the majority, but even that could also be oppressive in the given case... if you're in the minority. Suppose now that the goal of the political economy is to reduce the power people have over other people, or the power to oppress them (increasing their self-acting and self-realising ability) and increase the power of people to shape the physical universe in accordance with their needs, what role should different allocative principles play in this? What "mix" of institutions is desirable? You can allocate things via markets, by law, by custom, by vote, by experts or leaders, by individual initiative etc. If all we're saying is is that workers are exploited, capitalism is all bad, markets are all bad etc. that is not very interesting and it is moreover mistaken - to argue that, suggests that people were on balance really better off with feudalism and its "great chain of being", reaching from God at the top, to serfs crawling around in dirt, to lodestone at the bottom, within the perspective of an eternal and immutable social order, in which your place in life is more or less predestined from birth, if you're lucky enough to escape from bubonic plagues and the whims of the lords. A better sort of argument I think is to say with Marx that capitalism implies a highly contradictory form of progress (meaning both steps forward, and steps backward, from a human point of view), but in that case we have to get much more specific about the pro's and con's of particular markets, and the interests served by them, and more specific about non-market allocative principles which are more just, equitable or efficient. If I say that markets are all bad etc., I have already assumed what I have to prove, whereas a genuine critique of markets would elucidate their benefits, disadvantages and limits, to supply insight into what is necessary for more superior forms of resource allocation. The best thinkers actually do do this, but there are also many people just bitching about a "capitalist den of inequity". They may pull out a lot of scholarship, but they've lost the purpose of the critique, in which case there is no alternative... but to bitch. If however we tackle to job with a bit more integrity, we try to assess objectively what exists, in order to supply alternatives. At a personal level, that can take the form of exploring different forms of association and social organisation, equipped with some historical thinking telling us that "things were not always this way, and will not always be this way" and consequently that, whereas as some conditions can be taken as given, other permit the possibility of progressive change. If my analysis consists only of stating how conditions are bad, it really isn't a very good analysis. If on the other hand my analysis enables conclusions about how things could be different, it's a better analysis. And if my analysis shows what is to be done, to improve things... well then it becomes a good analysis. The best analysis is, of course, simply to do what is good, right, just, efficient, etc. and in this way set a sane example, as the great thinkers of our age encourage us to do. I don't pretend to be a great analyst in my fragmented lifestyle - you can e.g. have these funny thoughts sometimes, about "what am I an example of, in this situation" - but there's the challenge I think. Terry Eagleton claimed that Marxists "recognise that there can be no authentic socialism without the rich heritage of enlightened bourgeois liberalism" ("Where do postmodernists come from?", in E.M. Wood & J.B. Foster (eds), In Defence of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1997), p. 24). What else is that heritage, if not an efflux of the growing market economy? Jurriaan PS - perhaps we should deconstruct Jenkins's contention a bit more, and relish his poetic truth.
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