Times Square Isn’t the Free Market
What would a world of unfettered free markets look like? If you fear everything turning into Times Square–style advertising, you can probably rest a little easier, at least on that point:
About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal‘s Metropolis blog ran an item by Aaron Rutkoff on zoning and advertising in Times Square, called “Good Taste in Times Square? It’s Illegal.” As it turns out, the bright lights and “colorful corporate orgy” of Times Square advertising — as paradigmatic a symbol of American capitalism as you could hope for — is the result, not of unfettered free-market commercialism, but of a detailed set of mandates handed down in New York City’s special zoning ordinance for the “Special Midtown District:”
Mandating among other things that a certain proportion of all buildings be covered by brightly lit signs that stay on until 1 AM. Blinky signs can’t go dark for longer than three seconds. There are detailed rules for luminosity and the directions that the signs may point. And so forth.
[A] story like that of the Times Square zoning code is… paradigmatic… of how large-scale, in-your-face commerce typically works in these United States, and how it interacts with the corporate economy throughout the world. That’s why I have often referred to myself (following the example of Kevin Carson) a “free market anticapitalist” — because I believe in a really broad and radical version of property rights and market freedom in economic ownership and exchange, but (unlike, say, the Wall Street Journal) I think that the features conventionally associated with American capitalism — large-scale, top-down firms, the predominance of wage labor, corporate domination of economic and social life, the commercialization of social space etc. — are as often as not the products of state intervention, not of market dynamics. And, further, that a genuinely and consistently freed market would tend to undermine the prevalence and significance of these features in everyday life.
What would a freed market look like? The truth is that probably none of us know. It’s likely to be very weird and to require cultural adjustments that none of us can imagine. There are theoretical reasons to suspect it will be a whole better than what we have, but I’m well aware that not everyone finds these reasons convincing. The strongest arguments that actually do convince are those for incremental movement — this licensing scheme doesn’t do any good; that trade barrier should be abolished; this environmental problem can be solved by defining property rights just a little bit more clearly and strictly. And there is much to be learned along the way, for all of us.
A previous generation of libertarian thinkers seems to have picked up from their socialist counterparts a dangerous longing for utopia. Yet the implications of their own social thought should have made them anti-utopian pragmatists, well aware that none of us know enough to design a perfect society in the here and now. Baby steps. There are knowledge problems everywhere, even in the attempt to let markets solve knowledge problems.