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Markets R Us

June 16th, 2003 · No Comments

Folks who are skeptical of free-markets often talk about markets as though they’re some sort of alien force, a mysterious Other. (I suppose the term “invisible hand” hasn’t helped.) Market partisans typically counter, rightly enough, that this is a mistake: markets are just an framework, a set of rules for interaction given content by millions of individual people choosing, buying, competing, and cooperating. We are “the market.”

Libertarians seem to sometimes do something similar, though, and it pops up in the comments to this post, as well as this one. Criticism of any private practice—in this instance Wal-Mart’s ludicrous decision to cover up the “lurid” covers of women’s fashion mags and a German firmâ??s insistence that employees not smoke, on premises or off—provokes a weird response. First, there’s a tendency to act as though the critique is equivalent to some kind of public policy proposal. “Well, they have a right to…” And of course, they do. But almost nobody would argue otherwise. I imagine that what happens is that libertarians get so accustomed to speaking in the language of rights that the appeal to it becomes reflexive, even where thereâ??s no disagreement about what people should be entitled, as a matter of law, to do. “When the only tool you have is a hammer” and all that jazz.

If you point this out, of course, people will typically recognize that rights aren’t really at issue. But the next common response is equally off. Folks will say: “well, the market will decide whether or not this is a good practice, and if people don’t like it, itâ??ll die off.”

Well, true enough. But what, again, is “the market?” People talking, sharing information, comparing alternatives. So criticism of some private firmâ??s behavior isnâ??t somehow a symptom of hostility to the market. It is the market.

Thereâ??s an additional point to be made, though, that is more directly political. Good political structures donâ??t sustain themselves in a vacuum; this is something conservatives understand well enough, even if their particular notions of what that implies are misguided. Certainly, if the stateâ??s not going to regulate peopleâ??s behavior, then to some extent private parties must, by means of owners and organizations placing conditions on their association. But I donâ??t know that we can ultimately say that legal control is to be avoided but any sort of private control is fine and expect that the private and public spheres wonâ??t affect each other.

Attitudes spill over. A culture in which people become accustomed to employers dictating the minutiae of their lives off the job is unlikely to nurture the kind of love of autonomy thatâ??s conducive to the maintenance of a free political system. A community in which bigotry in employment practices becomes, not an aberration that a few cranks are permitted to engage in, but the unremarkable norm, wonâ??t be apt to see all that much wrong when racial distinctions creep into law. In short, caring about human autonomy means your concern shouldnâ??t stop at the boundary between public and private. When liberal attitudes die on the private side of that line, the line itself doesnâ??t have much chance of holding.

Update: A case in point on steroids… Commenter Nick points to this frankly insane piece in which Karen DeCoster is sent into paroxysms of semi-literate rage by a fellow libertarian’s argument that SUV’s are a poor choice, even as they should be free from any legal stigma. Just a reminder: when you express an opinion about people’s choices without bringing politics into it, that’s not “totalitarian.” It’s called “advice.”

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