I think Jason and I disagree less than his critique of my post would suggest. He is correct that my rather brief treatment of markets (and the purpose of markets) leaves a great deal to be desired. I was not intending to write a piece explaining the many benefits (or limitations) of markets per say – mainly because, like Jason and the other libertarians here, I am an advocate of the free market. I am not terribly interested in arguing the merits of a free market economy. Certainly this will lead only to partisans in both camps hurling strawmen at one another. As Jason notes, both the success and failure of markets can “discover distributed and inarticulate knowledge about preference and utility.” And this is a good thing.
I think Jason’s strongest point is this:
But the real question is not whether markets work perfectly. It’s whether any of the alternatives can do the job as well or better. When we consider that the real work of markets is to gather up distributed knowledge and render it publicly legible, it seems clear to me that few other social institutions are even seriously trying. Many of the worst of them, government programs above all included, act as if this work has already been done — as if Hayek’s dispersed knowledge had already been aggregated once and for all, and as if the action at hand weren’t going to upset it all in the process.
To be perfectly clear, markets aren’t the be-all and end-all of public policy for me. They are, however, the option we ought to try first, because properly designed, they tend to tell us what’s going on. This is tremendously important, and it’s very difficult to admit that we don’t know it.
He goes on to argue that markets should also be a last resort – and that if there is a market failure, it is often as not a failure of the “given ruleset” not necessarily the market itself. Healthcare is a prime example of this.
And of course, in order for markets to work, for human progress to continue, and really for a sane and somewhat rational, stable economy to flourish, above all else we must maintain choice.
Indeed, Jason’s advocacy of choice is compelling, and I tend to agree that the more choice the better, if only because I could not tell you where or with whom we should limit it. The more freedom the better. I certainly don’t want to be constrained in my own choices, and I am not nearly paternalistic enough to want to constrain others in theirs. Whatever constraint or sacrifice we make based on coercion is a false one.
And so, as a matter of policy preference, I prefer as few rules as possible. Like Gary Johnson, I don’t like people telling me what to do. Indeed, I have become increasingly libertarian in my beliefs on public and economic policy. The fewer government restraints on our choices the better. We should stop locking people up because they choose to smoke a relatively harmless plant, for instance. Nor should we go about banning cigarettes simply because they are flavored, or requiring that bars – bars, for goodness sakes! – should do away with smoking altogether. Freedom and social stability go hand in hand – at least up to a point. I am no anarchist, after all.
Nevertheless, I think as a philosophy – if not as a policy platform – endless choice, ambition, competition, individualism and so forth are still antithetical to conservatism. Perhaps these things should merely be thought of as letting well enough alone – minding our own business and that of our families and neighbors. And I suppose what I’m driving at is that conservatism needs more than just markets or the language of markets as its philosophical foundation. More importantly, however, conservatism needs to quit subverting culture to the whim of politics. Everything – even marriage – has become in the hands of contemporary conservatism a political bludgeon. The sanctity of marriage is threatened more by its use as a talking point in endless political debate than by the prospect of gays marrying.
If this is a somewhat incoherent argument on my part, I apologize. I’m working out my thoughts on this concept of an anti-political politics. My discomfort with contemporary conservative politics is not its embrace of markets – which I support for all the reasons Jason mentions – but the vapid and rather shallow philosophical mooring which accompanies this embrace. Everything has become a talking point.