On Free Markets
So look, I believe that free markets are absolutely the way to go. Don’t go with the central planners – who wants wage controls dictated from the top down? Things didn’t work out so well for Soviet Russia. State capitalism has its benefits as China has discovered, but some serious downsides as well.
I’m not 100% sure what we have erected and described as ‘globalization’ is in fact a free market system – globalization is heavily subsidized; free trade agreements are often tilted to favor rich countries; the World Bank helps multi-national corporations expand, effectively subsidizing the most powerful corporate institutions. A tangle of agriculture subsidies and questionable arm-twisting in countries rich in natural resources makes the whole thing look decidedly un-free. But it’s certainly more free than it could be, state intervention notwithstanding. Still, I’m not sure it’s even possible to sort out where the state ends and where free trade begins. So I think it’s most helpful to discuss free markets in terms of how free they are, not whether they are free or not.
Anyways, what I’m trying to get at is that I think one can support free market policies without having to support every page in the libertarian playbook. One doesn’t have to be a minarchist or an anarcho-capitalist to understand and appreciate the value of free markets. Unless you define free markets in the strictest of terms then you can still appreciate fairly liberal economic policies while maintaining a fairly robust welfare state. One can support organized labor and safety regulations and banking regulations, etc. and still generally support the value of a free-market economy.
The alternative is not calling it free market at all. Call it just a ‘market economy’ or a regulated market or whatever. But then all the advocates of free markets would have to become 100% purists, denounce all the institutions of globalization and the state, and embrace anarchism. Otherwise we get pissing contests. The liberal says “I support free markets but want X regulations to make them less risky.” The libertarian says “That’s not a free market! I want an unregulated market but I still support the existence of the state and many of its institutions.” The anarchist says: “That’s not a free market! No free market can exist when there is a state around to interfere with it.” The libertarian sees corporations as an outgrowth of a free market economy; the anarchist sees corporations as creatures of the state.
All of which is to say that I really haven’t abandoned my appreciation for a mostly free market system simply because I’ve decided a little Keynesianism would be good for the country during a recession, or because I think that wealth ought to be much more equitably distributed, or that public schools should remain public. But I do think absolutism is pointless. It’s usually either inconsistent or Utopian. I’d rather have a system in place that makes use of markets, does as little as possible to interfere with them, but also doesn’t attempt to replace traditional public institutions with the private stand-ins and I want a welfare system in place to provide for people who cannot provide for themselves. Hell, I think if you’re going to embrace largely unfettered markets, a welfare state is inevitable and necessary. I don’t think either the public or private sector qualifies as a “weed” (see my Civil Society piece for reference) but I do think that markets exist within a larger framework of society that includes non-market actors and state actors as well.
I think it’s obvious that much of what Jason is advocating for here can be argued for just as easily by those who also want universal healthcare or carbon taxes or stricter banking regulations. After all, pencils and pocket calculators came about in a world dominated by generally liberal economies in countries that are essentially welfare states. Democracy mixes well with liberalized economies. They can exist in tandem quite successfully. The welfare state did not impede the invention of the pocket calculator or the iPad. Having single-payer insurance would not sink the next great technological advance either. Nor would keeping parking meters in the hands of city governments. I guess my point is, I don’t think anyone is arguing for massive central planning of the economy. We’re simply arguing that different spheres of society should tackle different tasks. And I’m arguing in particular for collaboration between those spheres – for a cooperative society, not just a competitive one. But I value competition, too.