25 January 2013

Society != The State

Jaltcoh | John Althouse Cohen | The "acting alone" fallacy

I object to this move [in Obama's 2nd Inaugural], which seems to have become popular with Democrats in the past couple years, of equating "doing things together" with government. To suggest that anyone who'd like to see less heavy-handed government regulation thinks one person can do everything alone is a straw-man argument. It indicates a lack of understanding of how the private-sector economy works and how libertarians or conservatives actually think about economics. The private sector isn't just a bunch of people "acting alone." As Matt Welch pointed out in his critique of the speech, making and selling an object as basic as a pencil is such a complex endeavor that it takes lots of different specialists. No one person has the knowledge to accomplish that seemingly simple task; that's how decentralized knowledge is in society. [...] The idea that you're "alone" unless you're being directed by the government strikes me as dehumanizing and almost abusive.
I see Obama and a lot of other people on the Left demagoguing pro-market people as being loners, unwilling to cooperate with others in society. I reject this for exactly the same reasons Cohen does, and find it dehumanizing.*

(* Incidentally, this reminds me of some of the rhetoric I've encountered from the Counter-Reformation, English Civil War, etc. that stated you aren't a full person unless you have the benevolent guidance of the Pope/Archbishop of Canterbury/King/whatever to guide you. Acting without the blessing of the putative leader of a society is not, and has never been, the same as turning your back on that society itself. It also reminds me of more Eric Hoffer aphorisms than I have time to quote. Fine, fine. One quote from Reflections on the Human Condition which connects both of these thoughts: "Both absolute power and absolute faith are instruments of dehumanization.")

What I find interesting is that I've also heard Leftists critiquing markets with some variation of "what kind of psychotic system allows other people to determine the value of your work?" This position criticizes markets as being too responsive to other people in society and insufficiently focused on individuals. This is the polar opposite of Obama's statement, and yet one I bet he would also endorse. (In private, at least.)

This second critique is less commonly expressed, but I think it's the main reason that you see so many Leftists in Art and Academics. These are fields where the prevailing ideology is that the value of a work is completely independent from other people's opinion of it. I can respect this view, but I have no trouble holding the idea that there is a Platonic ideal value of a work simultaneously to thinking that there is another, socially-derived value that I can expect it to actually be priced at. The idea that a value might be determined based in large part on the opinions of buyers (i.e. other people) rather than being an inherent attribute of a thing itself is abhorrent to the Academic or Artistic mind.

I think that people making both of these critiques miss the beautifully social nature of markets. Literally nothing gets done in a market economy unless you can get dozens of people to cooperate voluntarily with you. You need suppliers, workers, managers, investors, and most of all consumers to agree to go along with your plans. Mr Obama's alternative is the State, where anyone with a badge gets to have their way. I favor markets precisely because I like society, I like cooperation, and I like heterogeneity. And yet I'm criticized for wanting to be alone, for wanting to fight, for wanting to homogenize.

(Via Coyote Blog)

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