Sunday, October 19, 2008


Norman Geras describes "the free market" (his emphasis) as:

a rather large and complex institution sitting beside, affecting and affected by, other institutions, and interacting with human character, motive and action in a multiplicity of ways
This is a strange sort of institution, if such it is, without premises, personnel or any other institutional manifestation. Certainly, there are other institutions that bear upon the market - regulators, tax authorities, weights and measures inspectors - but they aren't part of the free market. What does that look like? And what form is taken by the apparently non-corporeal qualities of "human character, motive and action" with which this institution interacts?

This seems to me to be a strange piece of gymnastics, but then so does the spark for Norm's post, a question that was put to a number of eminent people:
Does the free market corrode moral character?
The term "free market" refers to the complicated and complex patterns of behaviour that emerge when people interact with one another in ways that can reasonably be measured primarily in economic terms, and do so with a fairly large degree of freedom of action.

The quoted question to the Wise can be rephrased:
Does the opportunity to act freely corrode moral character?
While a certain amount of corrosion might have preceded such interactions, it's not completely unreasonable to suggest that economic freedom might tend to reinforce self-interested behaviour and that this is detrimental to moral character. But nobody seems to be arguing this.

Instead, there are what seem to me to be spine-twisting contortions that permit this to be discussed as though people were not the ones doing the buying and selling. Instead, this all, apparently, takes place in some form of external institution, beyond the boundaries of which the disembodied virtues of actual people drift helplessly, like wraiths in the fog.

It might be the case that some schools of political thought rely on this kind of contrived separation of actor and action. It helps avoid the possibility that we are talking here about human freedom itself, and not some detached institution.

UPDATE: I initially decided not to get into this, but have changed my mind. Geras linked to a pdf of one of the Wise Folk's responses, that of "Michael Walzer [...] professor emeritus in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey[...] contributing editor of the New Republic, co-editor of Dissent, and the author, most recently, of Thinking Politically". Waltzer got close, but not very close, to the thing I said above that people were not arguing when he blamed competition for making people do nasty things. But he then went on to compare this with democracy, suggest the same thing was true for the same reason, and that the thing that makes democracy work acceptably - constitution - should also be applied to the market. He concluded:
The corrosive pressures of electoral competition don’t go away. We set limits on those pressures out of respect for human frailty. And if we need to do that with regard to governments, we surely need to do it with regard to markets.
A political constitution, like that of the USA, sets limits on government power. If one is to liken politics to ecomonic activity, then the actors in the market - individual people - are analogous to the voters in a democracy and are therefore those who should be protected - that is have their freedom protected, not limited - by a constitution. The professor has got this exactly the wrong way round. I wish this came as a surprise but, looking at his political orientation, it does not.

Incidentally, this exercise was carried out by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation that seeks to reconcile rationality with irrationality.


Peter Horne said...

"it's not completely unreasonable to suggest that economic freedom might tend to reinforce self-interested behaviour"

It's impossible to separate the operation of the free market from the actions of individuals and human nature itself. Abolish the free market and human self-interest remains. It simply finds other means of expressing itself.
Free markets are not only the most efficient means of organising economic activity but they are morally superior to the alternatives. They harness the natural tendency to self-interest for the good of society as a whole. They force people to cooperate to produce goods and services which other people are interested in.
The likes of Waltzer don't like them because they provide no means of control by him and the lefty elite to which he belongs, and it is control that he is interested in.

Peter Risdon said...

"Abolish the free market and human self-interest remains. It simply finds other means of expressing itself."

Exactly. This has been obvious in societies where free exchange has theoretically been abolished. Not only has a black market emerged, or rather grown, for it is always with us, but also other channels for the advancement of the individual have appeared. Self advancement through the hierarchy of a Party is not obviously better than the success or failure of freely entered into transactions with other people.