Markets and Faith
If the past two-plus years have taught us anything, it is that placing unfettered trust in the inherent wisdom of the free market is, at best, a shaky wager that courts potentially disastrous outcomes. I’ve taken that lesson strongly to heart based on my Canadian experience. It is widely acknowledged that tighter banking regulations and a general culture of greater prudence and responsibility has ameliorated the worst of this worldwide meltdown for Canadians.
I’m loathe to comment much on what, exactly, caused the global financial meltdown and panic. My hunch has always been that the meltdown was the combination of any variety of factors. Placing the blame solely or even primarily on deregulation in general, as Scott seems to intend here, has always struck me as a gross oversimplification of the meltdown; moreover, even if the particular set of deregulations at issue here really were the sole or overwhelming cause of the meltdown, that’s far from an indictment of deregulation in general (a particularly important question should be whether the loosened regulations were ameliorative or barrier-creating). And, of course, you can’t consider the crash in a vacuum, particularly given the general prosperity of the 25 years or so prior to the crash.
And, to the extent Scott’s piece is read as an argument that government can be trusted to cure the problems of a free market without eliminating the good of the free market, I would suggest that he is placing far, far too much faith in the ability and benevolence of government policy-makers.
Still, I think Scott has more of a point than he realizes when he makes reference to the problem of “unfettered trust in the inherent wisdom of the free market.” Regardless of regulation or deregulation, and really regardless of stated political beliefs, there is a cultural tendency in the US and probably much of the West to act as if markets are a panacea, a moral arbiter, and inherently good and trustworthy.
They are not. And they are not for one very simple reason: where they exist, they are us. All of us, and each and every part of each one of us – the moral parts of each of us and the immoral parts of each of us, the wise parts of each of us and the incredibly idiotic parts of each of us. This is, in many ways, even why markets are such a critical element of any philosophy of freedom: they provide a daily mirror of who we are as a nation and as humans, allowing us to change and evolve into better, wiser humans.
But the second that we start “placing unfettered trust in markets,” regardless of how regulated or unregulated those markets are as a matter of policy, we enter the realm of fantasy-land. We think that whatever the markets decide will be good for us because, after all, in our culture – indeed, in the culture of much of the West, lest we forget the role of Icelandic banks in the global crisis – we tend to think that almost all decisions we make are good and wise decisions. In short, we are overwhelmingly an arrogant, egotistical lot. And we are also a remarkably creative lot. These elements of our culture have produced great accomplishments; indeed, they are virtually the definition of an entrepreneurial spirit, and on the whole, they even seem to serve us quite well. They also, however, make us quite gullible, allowing us to fool ourselves into thinking that we know far more than we actually know and allowing us to go along with (and come up with) all sorts of convoluted schemes.
I suspect that it is that gullibility which ultimately underlay much of the financial crisis and market “bubbles” more generally. But that gullibility can ultimately only be overcome culturally. Regulation may or may not help in particular circumstances, even as it may or may not prove a hindrance to economic progress in other circumstances, and even as it is likely impossible to know in advance when regulation will help or hurt. But even where regulation can hypothetically help, it will not be able to change traits of creativity, egotism, and arrogance, and a market will remain in which those traits can be exercised to take advantage of the existing structure of rules.
What are needed, therefore, are cultural tendencies towards skepticism and humility about the scope of human knowledge, even as aggregated in a particular market. Markets are useful because they provide us choices and freedoms and allow us to make decisions for which we are each best-suited. But they are only useful for that purpose if we use them for that purpose rather than treating them as independent and benevolent decisionmakers in and of themselves.