Let’s talk about markets, democracy and technocratic politics… October 3, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, The Left.
The current issue of Prospect magazine is out. Prospect being deeply liberal is therefore deeply conflicted by the current government in the UK. But not quite so conflicted that it will seek a genuine path beyond austerity (Bronwen Maddox’s editorial which tries to step away from austerity but only marginally is example A in that respect – perhaps most entertaining is her line that ‘if the prime minster rewrote his chancellor’s script, he should do the same to that of his coalition partners, telling the Lib Dems that some of their tax ideas are so hostile to business that they also jeopardise a recovery’. Well, perhaps).
Still, there’s some interesting stuff, not least a short piece by Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard who makes the not entirely original – but usefully concise point – as regards the excessive emphasis on the market. He notes that ‘we often confuse market reasoning for moral reasoning. We fall into thinking that economic efficiency – getting goods to those with the greatest willingness and ability to pay for them – defines the common good’.
It is not difficult in this polity to see precisely that dynamic in operation. And it is true further afield. This confusion underpins and to some degree underwrites the contemporary economic and political dispensation – and it is in the latter area that it is so deeply pernicious.
And Sandel makes a very important point that has a broader significance. Discussing the problematic aspects of markets he takes as an example the ‘market’ in organs.
At first what looks like a free exchange might not be truly voluntary. In practise the sellers of kidneys would likely consist of impoverished people desperate for money to feed their families or educate their children. Their choice to sell would not really be free but coerced, in effect, by their desperate condition.
This aspect of markets appears to be ignored, or at best glossed over time and again by champions of the market. Consider the emphasis on expenditure cuts rather than tax rises. Logically one knows that the former will impact upon those with least ability to bear it precisely because their choices are more clearly constrained by their circumstances. Yet we are told time and again that this is the ‘courageous’ and ‘tough’ choice rather than raising taxes on those with greater ability to bear such impacts.
And of course it points up the fact that there is no level playing field, that conditions can equal coercion and in ways that fundamentally predicate against positive, let alone optimum, outcomes. It is in essence the basic riposte to right libertarianism. But it is also useful in puncturing the pretensions of conservative and neo-liberal proscriptions – whose intellectual antecedents are often rooted in right libertarianism.
But Sandel goes further, he makes the point that ‘before we can say whether any particular market exchange is desirable, we have to decide what counts as a free choice rather than a coerced one. And this is a normative question, a matter of political philosophy’.
That last point is crucial. The answer will/must change according to circumstance, environment and other factors.
Sandel goes on to argue that ‘not on in textbooks, but also in everyday life, economics presents itself as a value-neutral science of human behaviour. Increasingly we accept this way of thinking and apply it to all manner of public policies and social relations. But the economistic view of the world is corrosive of democrat life. It makes for an impoverished public discourse and a managerial, technocratic politics’.
What could be added there is that the latter doesn’t actually work. One of the most telling aspects of the contemporary crisis is the way in which supposed technocrats ported into government administration, both in Greece and Italy, have comprehensively failed to produce the required outcomes.
Perhaps this is because the problems are so great that technocracy is unable to engage with them once it has to engage with real world conditions. Easy, all too easy, to write columns in newspapers or to present papers at conferences on rarely contested economic nostrums. Much much harder – near enough impossible it would appear – to apply these to the complexities of economies with a variety of entities and living breathing citizens who (rightly) will push back.
And perhaps that’s a broader lesson to take from this as well. Granted, and this site has been considering this for some time now, there’s been a failure of social democracy (in the main – though Hollande flies an interesting flag) in its governing forms. But allied to that has been a failure of technocratic ‘solutions’ as well. And beyond that there is the all embracing failure of neo-liberalism, and in particular the German manifestation of same, to come to terms with the limits of what is actually economically possible in democratic polities in this period of time.