18 February 2008

A False Dichotomy

Sandefur is reviewing Shermer's The Mind of the Market, a book that I'm interested in reading because of my respect for Shermer, but which I am skeptical of because of my general distaste for arguments that try to apply specific evolutionary/biological principles to social phenomena. (As Jon should well know. )

Anyway, Sandefur's not really a fan of the book, but you can go there to read his thoughts. What stuck out for me is this bit from the beginning:

Shermer’s overall point is to argue that free markets address the social and ethical needs that evolution bred into human nature. On that level of generality, the thesis is unobjectionable—indeed, it simply must be right, since free markets are objectively preferable to centrally planned economies on every conceivable level, because people find them useful and resort to them when they have the opportunity, because centrally planned economies are such disastrous and inevitable failures, and because human beings are in fact products of evolution. [Bold emphasis added -- DEH]

Let's set aside for a moment the idea that something (anything) can be "objectively preferable" -- a preference is, by definition, a subjective valuation. Instead let's look at the rhetoric used there: Sandefur contrasts a "free market" with its opposite, a centrally planned economy, without ever noting what should be immediately obvious. A totalitarian central economy with everything owned by the state and an anarcho-capitalist state with absolutely no government or public sector whatsoever are simply opposite ends on a spectrum and a reasonable alternative to either is some sort of regulated economy with rule systems in place to prevent horrible outcomes.

In short, the kind of economy that virtually anyone who's not an absolute wingnut (on either side) would think is the most reasonable option. (To be fair, I'm not calling Sandefur a wingnut here, as I don't know his specific type of libertarianism.) That private enterprise is good at providing microchips and lattes is unquestioned, but whether or not a completely unregulated economy with no protections against monopolistic control of microchip-making or against abuse of peoples who grow coffee is another question entirely. Libertarians like Sandefur like to contrast their ultimate free-market ideals with the absolute worst examples of government excess, and seem to hope that the rest of us will forget that vast middle ground in which, well, things actually get done.

I'm all for allowing for profit motives, but before the rhetoric gets out of hand keep in mind that it was the free market that created the incentive and perpetuated slavery in the Americas, and that is was government regulation that ended the practice. The free market is a great thing, but to idolize it to the point of placing it above all other factors is to make a grave error.

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