Replying Re Parecon

Recently Brian Williams posted a review of Parecon, I think to his ZSpace page and attached to the book page, and here are some conversational, off the cuff, reactions as I read through it.

For the most part Brian seems making a case about a system he calls LME, not so much about parecon – most of whose relatively few defining features are never mentioned.


Brian says whereas parecon treats all goods similarly – LME, makes a major distinction between what he calls the “public sector” and defines by example as "the postal service, utilities such as water, electricity and gas, waste management, public broadcasting and media, highways and public transit, education and health care." He contrasts this with "luxury goods" "which are those goods or services which are deemed inessential for public sustainment." He then lists sporting, recreation, and hobby tools and equipment, electronic goods such as DVRs and stereos, vehicles, beers, fancy clothing, and so on. 


I find this a bit confusing as I don’t know where items would go, even if one wanted to make such a distinction for some reason – food? transport? books? violins? computers? art? How about all the tools used to produce all the "public goods?" Is medicine only a few need in one camp, or the other? Is good I want, but you don’t? What about big stadiums, some like, others don’t. And so on. 


In any case, Brian says "unlike parecon, the LME model is built upon the distinction between the public and the private sectors." If Brian is actually talking about public and private – meaning goods consumed collectively as compared to those consumed individually, I get it, but of course Parecon takes that into account. If he is talking about something having to do with the importance or character of the goods, then I don’t get it.


Brian says, "according to the LME model, the public sector goods and services would ideally be free to everyone, while those distributed in the private sector would be bought and sold in markets, which would in its more ideal form be characterized by an approximately perfect competition."


Well, does this mean I can have my own airplane – for transit – free – because transit is public? Is housing public – in Brian’s terms? If it is, can I then have two – or one giant one? What if I want a little one, so I can have more other stuff? Or what if I want to forego more other stuff, but have a big one? Does it mean each town, city, county, can have any transit system it wants, any water system, any whatever for its town – how about a stadium, a wonderful concert hall? Can I have three cars, personally? How about parking lots? Can I have as much education as I want – years and years and years of it in any field I want, all free? Do I get to have water, electricity, gas, media, without limit? Do all workplaces also get that? How does anyone know how much of these things to produce? And what happens when there isn’t enough? And however all those public or social goods are going to be produced, if markets are determining the price of many inputs to them, then they are being created based on wrong signals as to true costs and benefits. And as to handling the rest of the economy – which is seemingly most of the economy – by market allocation, why does Brian think this is a good thing to do, or even not a disaster, as compared to Parecon arguing it would be  an utterly abysmal choice? 


Brian goes on to list some of the reasons why advocates of parecon reject markets in all aspects of allocation: markets subvert equity (by rewarding power and output and in some versions property too), misprice nearly everything, produce anti social motivations and personalities thereby subverting solidarity, and – he instructively leaves out – grossly curtail self management. 


Brian wants to argue that while he agrees that markets are bad in many cases, there is room for  or even necessity for their use for the non public sector (which is most goods, in his definition, I think).


He says, "the LME model allows for markets, not because I deny the critical points about markets which Albert identifies, but rather, because an economic system hoping to more closely approximate libertarian social virtues would need to include markets in the economic landscape."


This is a little strange to my ears, depending on what we mean by "libertarian social virtues." Parecon’s rejection of markets is based on the observation that they obliterate what I would call libertarian social virtues such as participation, solidarity, equity, and self management, and others as well. So how can one agree with that, which Brian says he does, but then nonetheless urge that we need markets to better approach those values? Well – there is one way to take that stance sensibly, it seems to me. It would have to be that while parecon is identifying real flaws, as Brian agrees, the flaws cannot be avoided without incurring even greater flaws. 


Okay, fair enough – but then presumably Brian would make an argument for why markets do a better job of attaining worthy values and outcomes than participatory planning, or more specifically how they avoid the even worse failings of the latter, particularly regarding allocation. If he can do that, I agree he has a strong point.


Thus, Brian opts for markets – despite having agreed that they produce anti-sociality not solidarity, inequity, hierarchy, etc. – because of two overriding concerns that "pertain to human nature and the different motives which stem from it," and "the ability of the public sector to check the worst excesses of the private sector when properly implemented."


Brian’s belief is that human nature is such that to use other than markets will incur a grave cost and, more, that we can avoid that cost by sticking with markets and also mitigate some of the lesser costs of markets by wise complementary choices, thus on balance making them a very good choice for at least part of our economy.


Brian hinges his view that rejecting markets will have grave costs on the idea that "some people are very greedy while others are very altruistic and cooperative" or, at any rate, the idea that not everyone is intrinsically, inevitably highly social. Parecon’s response is to say, okay, we agree, but as a result of not presuming that all people are saints – in our views what follows is that we should have institutions which make it individually advantageous to be socially caring and solidaritous, so that even those inclined to be greedy and self centered nonetheless wind up also benefitting the community. What would be truly deadly in this situation would be to instead create an environment in which to get ahead I have to trample others, and, in fact, if I don’t, I will surely fall behind, which is to say a market environment. 


Brian says, "wouldn’t individuals within a libertarian society, i.e., a society which sought to maximize social virtues such as liberty and solidarity, need to work within economic systems which allowed them to utilize and tap into both their individualistic and social energies as a means of self-sustainment?"


Yes, sure, replies parecon, again, depending on what that word liberty means. But assuming it means something like self management, this observation doesn’t imply that institutions should make the pursuit of individual inclinations attainable only by trampling on sociality as well as other values like equity, etc. Why not, instead, employ institutions which entail, even if I am highly individualistic and not inclined to care about others, nonetheless, that my pursuing my own agendas requires that I behave consistently with others being able to fulfill theirs too? The fact that we want to allow individual pursuits – and who wouldn’t want to foster those – doesn’t mean we have to opt for structures that ensure my acting to live better myself will restrict or otherwise impinge others being equally free to do so themselves? 


What parecon claims to do – which it seems to me Brian simply ignores – is to create an environment producing solidarity even while also maximally facilitating private pursuits so long as those don’t impinge on others having the same freedoms. Brian doesn’t show that somehow participatory planning will conflict with human nature – in fact, he never even sees any need to address participatory planning since anything other than markets is ruled out for him – but instead as best I can tell, simply assumes it must be the case. Thus he says that "the LME accepts and accounts for the variation in human nature by incorporating both markets (which allow for the free expression of peoples’ individualistic/self-centered ambitions), and public sectors (which build upon peoples’ “social” instincts). 


The idea that markets allow for the free expression of peoples’ ambitions, for themselves or others, is assumed, despite that it is patently false…and elsewhere Brian even agrees it is false. What markets not only allow but make inevitable, is that we can compete in a rat race, and that in that competition some will win thereby becoming the biggest strongest and richest rats, and other’s will lose, from then on enduring subordination. 


In any case, the whole point of parecon is that participatory planning and its other institutions allow and promote private inclinations and social responsibility simultaneously, and without making accomplishment of the former depend on denying the latter, or vice versa. 


Brian says, parecon’s "identified means of allowing for its expression are, in my view, inadequate. This inadequacy will stifle of our individualistic/self-centered ambitions, and ultimately make the parecon idea unsustainable." 


The trouble is, no reason is provided. How does operating with participatory planning, rather than predatory markets, and all markets are predatory, somehow conflict with individualistic ambitions – particularly in an otherwise social setting. Yes, participatory planning and the rest of parecon as well conflicts with my getting rich at your expense, and if that is what Brian means by a worthy libertarian value, okay, we can just agree to disagree. But if he means participatory planning would conflict with his fulfilling his legitimate and worthy aspirations consistent with others being able to do likewise, then he should show how.


Next Brian notes that "parecon actually contains mechanisms which cause people to think socially, rather than selfishly as in a capitalist system" largely "through the parecon idea of remuneration, in which payment for work is allocated based on the duration, intensity and onerousness of the work carried out by individuals." Well, pareconish remuneration is certainly a part of it, but so is balanced job complexes, participatory planning, etc. 


Brian then says that in a parecon "if somebody wants to acquire more goods and services than would be allowed by the base income level, then they would simply need to do more of society’s unpleasant work, allowing them to accrue more “credit”, which they could then use to consume more goods and services." 


Almost. In fact, however, one could work longer, or harder, or doing more onerous tasks – assuming each is possible to arrange consistent with one’s workplace mates, etc. One cannot get more consumption, however, by amassing power, or property, or by producing something with better tools or that is more highly valued, etc.


Brian writes: "There is a Dead Kennedy’s song from the 1980s titled, “Where do you draw the line?”, in which Jello Biafra states that, `Anarchy sounds good to me, but then somebody asks ‘who will fix the sewers?’ Every theory has its holes when real life steps in.` Parecon’s answer is: the worker who seeks to accumulate more credit for goods and services will fix the sewers, and perform other unpleasant tasks such as waste collection, because he or she will be paid more handsomely for doing such tasks." 


This is actually false for a parecon – though it would materially be fair. In a parecon, people have balanced job complexes, so people who do as some of their work waste collection do other things too, and the total is comparably empowering to the mix other people have, including those who do some surgery, say, or teaching, or whatever else. Indeed, some of those doing surgery or teaching, etc., may be doing some garbage collection. Where Brian is right is that the material incentive element of remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness, affects our willingness to work at a balanced job complex, and our determination of how long we wish to work at it – depending, largely though I suspect not exclusively, on how much income we want to earn.


Brian worries about the requirement that work we will get remunerated for needs to be socially desired. He says "the problem with this logic is that innovative ideas for goods and services established by entrepreneurs won’t necessarily be `socially useful’, as is required to receive remuneration in a parecon. And since this entrepreneur won’t be able to sell his new product on an open market, he won’t be able to make as much under a parecon as he would in a market. This could stifle innovation."


I don’t follow this. If society doesn’t want – its members don’t plan for because they don’t desire – some potential innovation, then Brian is correct that one cannot use one’s time and various resources, etc., to produce that innovation and then claim an income for doing so. But why is this a problem? Note this doesn’t mean research that fails isn’t remunerated – the research done next year on trying to cure cancer is socially desired and remunerated, even if it fails. It does mean research that isn’t desired – say into how to exterminate species – isn’t remunerated, or, more to the point, undertaken at all.


Brian says, consider "goods that benefit only a very small segment of the population, such as a new type of spray paint to be used by graffiti artists." He worries, "they might not be seen as “socially useful”, and so might not generate remuneration in a parecon." But this is self contradictory or just misunderstands. Socially useful doesn’t mean everyone in society wants it. It means that in the planning process sufficient people want the amount to be produced to justify producing it – and allot to it, etc. Almost anything you name, some people will want, others won’t want. Whether it is socially desired or not based on the numbers, but is based on whether it is beneficial enough to those who do want it to cover the costs of its production. Are we allocating resources and energies sensibly. To remunerate me for playing shortstop or doing cancer research would be ridiculous – not socially desired. To remunerate Derek Jeter for the former (sensibly) and some biologist for the latter both make sense, however.


Brian says, "the monetary gains made from developing a new type of paint in an open market would be likely to far outweigh any remunerative gains made from developing the same product under a parecon." I think he is saying the gains to all who benefit from some new product – whatever it may be – will always outweigh the remuneration that is paid to those producing it, which is true, because there is also the cost of inputs, etc. 


Brian says, "therefore, the entrepreneur living in the parecon wouldn’t have as great an incentive to develop his idea as he would in a market." There was no need for all the preamble, which was wrong, to pose this last point. Thus, incontestably, if there is the possibility or even likelihood of amassing great wealth from some pursuit, than there is more material incentive to undertake that pursuit than if there is no such possibility. True. Yes, there is more material incentive for a huge number of different types of activity in capitalism than in a parecon – being a lawyer, say, or surgeon, etc. etc., as well as owning a workplace (which isn’t even a possibility in a parecon) or thinking up an innovation. 


But for Brian to equate reducing the material incentive for anti-social behavior or even worthy behavior by precluding the enactor becoming inequitably wealthy with "stifling of individualistic ambitions in cases like this" seems to me to be incredibly odd. Ayn Rand might say something like that – but someone who is taking seriously social values and needs?


If the current salary, to make Brian’s point simpler and incontestable, of a surgeon is $500,000 a year, and of in a parecon the surgeon would have to do other less empowering tasks and would earn basically an average income – save for working a bit longer or less long than average, etc. – thus undeniably having less material incentive to be a surgeon – it doesn’t stifle the ambition to be a surgeon. On the contrary, with the new norms there will be many more who will do surgery, so the ambition is actually going to be fulfilled for many more people. What the remunerative norm stifles is the ambition to earn five, ten, or five hundred times as much as the social average by any route at all. To that parecon pleads guilty. But equating eliminating unjust income with stifling liberty is odd indeed – again, perhaps Randist, but not seriously humane in any sense I can see.


Brian says, without markets "(1) society would be deprived of new and interesting goods and services, even if those goods or services individually only benefit a small segment of the population, (2) the consistency of the parecon model with libertarian norms is brought into question to some extent, and, worst case scenario: (3) the stifling of people’s individualistic ambitions could make parecon unsustainable, eventually leading to a “fall of the Berlin wall”, so to speak, as the desire to participate in markets freely would eventually boil over and cause the economic system to collapse."


What can I say? We have to agree to disagree and I hope people will look at the book Brian claims to be reviewing to make up their own minds.


Brian also says, "another potential problem with the parecon model, is that it doesn’t allow people sufficient private space in making consumption choices, and would seem to be too slow moving at times."


I always find it strange, and quite reassuring when people offer critiques of parecon that list problems I have carefully enumerated and replied to, since it suggests other problems don’t exist – perhaps – and then they ignore the substantial discussion of the problems I have offered…


I can’t repeat here, again, full explanations of why scare visions of people unable to consume what they want, or Berlin Walls falling, etc., are in the minds of the beholder – but not in the institutional features of parecon, nor do I think it would be very useful. The broader and more careful presentations do the job better than I can do here – so, if interested, please take a look.  


Brian reasonably asks "which approach nets a greater realization of social virtue: allowing or excluding markets?"


On the one hand I claim, and offer a whole lot of evidence to substantiate, that we have various uncontested problems of markets. Thus, they misprice virtually everything in the economy, especially that which impacts the environment or groups. They produce anti social behavior not solidarity. They create class division. They entail gross violations of equity. They obliterate self management. On the other hand, we have some worries about alternatives to markets which there is no evidence to substantiate and every reason to find somewhat ludicrous. Nothing other than markets will provide needed incentives for innovation. Nothing other than markets will give consumers sovereignty over their consumption lives. 


Okay, fair enough. I say the latter worries are false particularly for participatory planning – but that in any case the former problems are gargantuan and uncontestable.   


Brian says his favored vision is "built upon the idea that its okay that markets aren’t democratic because democracy need not apply to all aspects of our lives. Democracy need only apply to those aspects of society which concern us collectively and the private sector is, by definition, not a concern of the public (in an idealized sense of the public/private dichotomy, that is)". 


What? Maybe I am misunderstanding, but does this mean slavery was okay because it was the private sector – whatever that is? And if a slave planation wasn’t the private sector, and thus okay, why is any firm? Why is it okay that workplaces are more authoritarian than the political realm in a typical dictatorship? And we are allowing this why – to have the BENEFITS of markets as measured in what – grotesque income inequality, cultural dissolution, egocentric individualism of the worst sort, endless work, ecological collapse, etc.? 


Brian says, the pareconomist would reply that business decisions of the private firm, while perhaps not concerning society at large (maybe the people consuming the goods), do at least concern the workers within that private sector business, and so the business ought to be internally democratic."


Actually, while I would say of course they should be for that reason, I would never say the rest. In fact, every economic decision affects every person, though to different degrees. Sometimes it is a lot – BP, meaning its bosses, decides on a method and whole communities are devastated, the whole country losing. Other times the wider ramifications are more subtle – a firm chooses to use one input instead of another, leaving less of the former for other purposes – let’s say they use quinine for soda pop thus leaving less for treating malaria. And so on. 


In fact, all economic decisions have wide social implications, but, yes, decisions in a workplace most often affect the workers there most, and then the consumers, and then those who may suffer ills of pollution, and then those affected by lesser availability of other goods, and so on. A good allocation system will convey to all affected a commensurate degree of influence over decisions, without, however, bogging down in silly and time consuming delays. Remarkably, that is what participatory planning achieves.


Brian says, "because private sector firms are undemocratic in both theory and practice, we cannot have both workplace democracy and markets; one or the other would have to be sacrificed. So which is to be sacrificed?"


In other words, do we sacrifice people’s right to have a say over the decisions affecting them – and in doing that also accrue most say into few hands, and then most wealth into those same few hands – or do we sacrifice markets, thereby losing no benefits we can’t enjoy by much better means? 


Brian asks, "Which is more essential, in this tradeoff, for the betterment of society and a closer approximation of social virtue? The pareconomist places workplace democracy above the libertarian virtues inherent in the ability of business owners to manage their firms hierarchically."


Honestly, I have to say – I should have read this whole essay carefully before beginning to reply. I often do my replies, and this is a case in point, paragraph by paragraph, so as to be sure to treat each step in the logic I am addressing and leave out nothing. The above formulation, however, is to my ears so horrendous that had I seen it before writing anything, I might not have bothered reply at all. Let me be clear. There is the same degree of libertarian value in a business owner managing their firms from the top down as there is in a slave owner doing so on the plantation, or a political boss in a neighborhood. 


Sometimes real and worthy values do collide – and we have to navigate difficult choices. And surely that will happen in the day to day dynamics of future societies. But the idea that Bill Gates ruling Microsoft from above is a worthy value in any sense at all, is, to me, honestly, ludicrous. It isn’t intrinsically just, worthy, etc. that a few should determine the life circumstances of many others, nor is it essential or even desirable for output.


Brian says, "The LME, on the other hand, allows for nondemocratic firms to exist and thrive because democracy need not apply to all sectors of the economy, only the public sectors, in order to remain consistent with libertarian norms."


Okay, fair enough. I still don’t know what those norms actually are. Or what is in one sector and the other. But you are correct we disagree, fundamentally…and apparently I am not "libertarian" in your sense of that term.


Brian says, "because pareconomists see “solidarity” and “equity” as values to be maximized in all cases, (i.e., because these are among the universal values to be striven for) they infringe unnecessarily on the value of “self-management” (or liberty) as it would be realized in private sector market endeavors."


First, there are no values one maximizes in all cases – a big wave is coming, you don’t see it, I grab you and pull you out of the way, forcefully. I don’t ask your permission, you have no say, and so on. But there are values that are deep and wide enough that we need a very good argument to violate them at all, much less to routinely violate them, much less to  literally make choices that obliterate them. 


Second, I apparently don’t know what you mean by liberty, but self management certainly does not mean that I am free to act in a way that leaves you less ability to self manage than I have. Brian’s argument could justify murder by the homicidally inclined…given that to curtail them infringes their liberty. Presumably he would agree there is no liberty to murder – and, I would add, there is no liberty to act in ways that diminish other people’s proportionate say in decisions that affect them. 


Brian says he "would argue that the gains in liberty which result from allowing nondemocratic markets to exist, outweigh the losses in equity and solidarity which result from including markets in the economic model."


Well, okay, we can agree to disagree. But I would actually claim that the even more egregious failing of markets is precisely what Brian seems to like about them – they not only allow (which would be bad enough) but they make literally inevitable the hierarchicalization of work and economic life, to the detriment of workers and the advantage of owners and the coordinator class.


Brian goes on to discuss some reasonable and some in my view not so reasonable ideas for limiting the ill effects of markets – much as one might argue that dictatorship has problems, but to disallow it would interfere with the liberty of wannabe dictators, so let’s have it, but then mitigate the ills. Even though I agree that mitigating the ills of dictatorship or markets is better than letting them run rampant, and especially if it is part of a project aiming toward new institutions, I have to admit that I honestly can’t handle reading any further about "maximizing liberty" by the "inclusion of markets." Honestly, I find that phrase vile…barely different from "maximizing liberty" by "permitting wage slavery" or even "maximizing liberty" by "permitting slavery per se" in a way it is hard for me to even try to communicate in words. So I should probably stop…


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