Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Insanity of Markets in Everything

Recently, we’ve been talking about the concept, which began in the twentieth century, but continues in the twenty-first, to turn the entire world into a market society governed by the “natural” rules of human behavior as expressed in the Market, with no intrusion of messy politics or social concerns. This “winner take all” and  “survival of the fittest” scenario and is the only way to organize a free and just society according to its proponents. Neoliberal economic ideology is the intellectual vanguard of this movement, and is lavishly funded by the wealthy and powerful.

For example, “Freakonomics,” written by a professor at the University of Chicago, promotes an idea that all human interactions (love, marriage, child-rearing, social behaviors, drug abuse, etc.) can be understood through a market-based framework,  and thus all we need to do is get the incentives right and all social problems will resolve themselves through the magic of the market. Freakonomics promotes things such as paying children to read books, and “nudge theory," where governments attempt to manipulate human behavior through taxes and social engineering via the market rather than public provision of goods. It wraps up these ideas in a slick, easy-to-swallow pill and portrays itself as unvarnished scientific truth. People who read the books and listen to the podcasts absorb free market ideology without even realizing it, which is much more effective propaganda than the Communists ever used.

Collectively provided goods like education, health care, pensions, and even things like roads, drinking water and sanitation, which are available to all, are seen as impediment to this vision and contrary to ultimate “freedom” which can only be expressed through “voluntary” transactions in an all-pervasive Market. Thus, to bring about their Market Utopia, these must be eliminated, and people must negotiate in the Market for even the smallest things. Your value as a person is entirely dependent upon how much cash you can command. Many Neoliberals and Libertarians are openly contemptuous of democracy, under which all citizens have an equal say in decision-making.

While this philosophy was supposed to lead to human freedom and individual flourishing without the heavy hand of the state, in reality it has led to plutocracy, extremes of inequality, destruction of the environment and local communities, and widespread debt servitude. Yet it continues unabated, achieving the unalloyed dominance of the world that Communists only dreamed about but never achieved. It is an expansionist philosophy imposed by disasters, either natural or manmade (e.g. debt ‘crises’), which brooks no opposition to its hegemony. To do this requires tearing apart the very fabric of society, including all of the things that make us human and bind us to one another besides cash transactions.

Surely, one of the most insidious forms of this philosophy is its approach to nature. Last time we saw that “externalities” must be assumed to be exceptions, not the rule, to make Neoliberal economics work. To subsume all reality into a Market, everything must have a cash value, thus nature must be seen as just another corporation providing services which can be assigned a cash value. In other words, all of reality must be reduced to market logic, rather than market logic be questioned in some way. It's the apotheosis of the Market to the divine (which is why I usually capitalize it).

I'll outsource the criticism of this to George Monbiot in the following video. If you'd prefer to read it, the link to the text is there as well.

Put a price on nature? We must stop this neoliberal road to ruin (The Guardian)

In addition, the philosopher Michael Sandel has been travelling around giving lectures on the problems inherent in turning from markets as a way to distribute certain goods and organize certain activities, to a society where everything is for sale. Below is a snippet of his speech he wrote for the Atlantic magazine:
As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.

These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted.

Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?

For two reasons. One is about inequality, the other about corruption. First, consider inequality. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence—or the lack of it—matters. If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to afford yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would matter less than they do today. But as money comes to buy more and more, the distribution of income and wealth looms larger.

The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship.

Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.
What Isn’t for Sale? (The Atlantic)

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