Monday, October 31, 2005

Subject Entirely to Market Forces

Of late, there have been many times that I have wondered about the way "the market" in used in conversation. I think our conversations about "the market" may not always be very useful, and perhaps this is because we aren't very careful about what is meant by "the market." I just read what I think is another illustration of this posted by Jason Scorse over at Environmental Economics Now, I don't really mean to pick on this specific essay. I simply want to use the way reference is made to "the market" to try to illustrate my concerns. Consider the following paragraph:
"We are living at a time when there is a strong backlash against environmentalism and pieces like, “The Common Good” do little more than add fuel to the fire. The majority of Americans are generally supportive of environmental causes, but become wary when environmentalists spend an exorbitant amount of time criticizing the capitalist economic system that has propelled America to such prominence and virtually unparalleled material well-being. While everyone understands that some spheres of life should not be subject entirely to market forces, using overly broad and ill-defined notions of what constitutes the “commons” is more likely to convince people that environmentalists are leftover communists than to draw rightful attention to the many serious problems plaguing open-access resources (it’s also simply sloppy thinking). In addition, with conservatives in charge of all the branches of the Federal Government rallying against the “encroachment of the market system” is clearly not a winning strategy."

Note the suggestion that everyone understands that not all areas of life should be "subject entirely to market forces." I'm not quite sure what this means, and I suspect I might not agree with the suggestion.

It seems human nature to "truck, barter, and trade" as Adam Smith may have put it. It seems to me that even in oppresive systems of political economy, market forces are at work. Individual behavior and response to personally experienced conditions and objectives can be influenced by government policy and thereby government coercion, but the tendency to exchange with others is ever present in human behavior. When government is too coercive, the exchanges tend to move away from the watchful eyes of government and its coercion [see DeSoto for some illustrations]. I see market forces as the realm of life in which people voluntary exchange with one another. Since market forces are characterized by voluntary exchange, it is hard to understand why we would agree to oppose such forces in any area of life, unless of course, there is reason to believe the person or property of others is harmed as a direct result.

I think the real issue regarding government concerns, first, seeing that government and economy are not separate spheres in our lives, but rather co-evolving spheres that make a system of political economy, and second, seeing that government is by nature inherently coercive. The question then is not government or markets, but rather, in what ways do we think it is acceptable to use coercion.

I think most agree that it is wrong to coerce others, e.g., it is wrong to harm others or to take what belongs to others. I think most would also agree that it is acceptable to use coercion (or to use force) in self defense; to protect yourself and your property from harm by the coercive and forceful actions of others. In this regard, I think all would agree that the at least one role for government coercion is to mirror the individual use of coercion for self-defense. Government which uses its coercion as "police power" to enforce laws against harm to person or property by others is widely regarded as legitimate.

The question really seems to me to be: Are there other circumstances for which we think the use of coercion is acceptable in our lives?

The market is the realm of voluntary, uncoerced interactions between people. Beyond the use of government coercion to enforce property rights and voluntary contracts, are there really other government actions that we think acceptable for the use of coercion in our lives? Why should we want to have coercion used to inhibit and constrain what would otherwise be the voluntary and uncoerced interactions between ourselves and others (i.e. the market)?

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