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Marketeers?!


Last issue I took a swipe at John Roemer’s new book The Future of Socialism. I also blasted Sam Bowles for praising the book on the back cover. I don’t like it when people who know better tell the public that markets—one of the most destructive institutions ever conceived on this planet—are ok, inevitable, or anything other than a proper target for a modern abolitionist movement. In the August 8 issue of In These Times, Nancy Folbre writes about Roemer’s book and a small conference that discussed it. Woe is me. Folbre is complimentary as well. Despite criticisms about its leaving out other sides of life, she seems to think this atrocious book has economic merit.

What lies at the root of the new fascination of many leftists for markets?

Many say that the fall of the Soviet Union has revealed the inviability of central planning, proving it incapable of allocating in the modern world, and that this has rejuvenated marketeers, across the political spectrum.

But this can’t be what has won over radical economists like Bowles and Folbre to including markets in a left vision. They know that claims about the ills of central planning (whether right or wrong) have no bearing on the virtues or debits of markets. And surely their born-again market advocacy doesn’t arise from recognizing the way in which markets distort preferences away from collective goods, which they recognize as a fault and admit. They know that markets don’t account well for ecological effects. They haven’t suddenly welcomed the reduction of human relations to relations among things brought, nor the escalation of consumerism to life’s central pastime, both of which facets of market they know well. None of the ills of markets, obviously, attract these folks. But nor do they cause them to reject markets.

So what makes left marketeers disregard all the well known ills and line up behind the market banner? Two things. One, for incomprehensible reasons leftist marketeers refuse to consider that there could be more than markets and central planning to choose from, and, having settled on the impossibility of alternatives, they opt for markets over central planning and try to put the most optimistic possible light on it. And two, there is something about markets that born again marketeers seem to really like. What is it? Markets are competitive and reward contribution to output.

And, here is the final irony of the whole damn mess. Even what the born-again marketeers point to as the virtue of markets, is, quite obviously, not virtuous at all. Neither being competitive nor rewarding contribujtion to output is a positive attribute. Indeed, both are faults of markets, not virtues.

The first half of this claim is so obvious I don’t know why any time is required to pursue it. People are social beings. Our institutions, other things equal, should help us express feelings of sympathy and empathy for one another. We should not praise or settle for economic institutions that force us to view other people as obstacles to be avoided, removed, or trampled over. We should not be compelled by our means of allocation to see other’s gains as our losses. An economy that is consistent with fulfilling human needs and capacities ought to create an in which for each to do better, all have to do better, so each person’s self-interest is to improve the lot of all. Does this preclude excellence? Does it preclude originality and diversity? No, what it precludes is turning people into predatory, greedy, hyenas.

So what about rewarding people according to the amount they contribute? Is this. at least, a positive aspect of the market ideal, if not the market in practice? No. Sorry. It isn’t. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why.

Consider the following. Two people go out to cut cane. They both put in a full, eight hour day. They both come back exhausted, each having worked their hardest to cut the cane. One of them is 6’4” and 210 pounds of muscle. The other is smaller. Does the one who cut more, deserve proportionately more pay? Is this going to cause them to cut differently the next day? And is it fair? Now suppose the production is not cutting cane but solving math problems. It’s all brain work. There are 20 fine mathematicians doing the problems. All work the same length day, and put in the same level of concentration and effort. The woman who sits down at the end of the table is a super genius, even in this talented group, and solves twice as many problems as the average for the group, and three times as many as the slowest problem solver in the group. Should she get twice the average income, and should the relative slow-poke get only two-thirds of the average income?

We know, as progressive people, Roemer aside, that we do not want to pay people more because they own some piece of capital. We do not believe humans should be ranked by how many pieces of gilded paper they have in their pockets. We don’t want this differentiation to even exist. Because this idiotic way of rewarding people without reference to anything they have done or are doing is grotesque, But what about rewarding contribution to output?

Well, rewarding contribution to output rewards social luck (whether you are in a productive workplace and able to contribute more to output or not), genetic endowment (as in the cane cutters and problem solvers), schooling (as in someone who learns productive skills versus someone who doesn’t), and effort (as in working hard or loafing).

So if we take these aspects of rewarding contribution each in turn, first, why should we reward social luck in economic activity? There is no incentive effect (we can’t improve our luck in response to the incentive of higher pay if we are even luckier). There is no moral justification for it. Second, why should we reward luck in the genetic lottery? A person gets groovy genes, so we pay them more to boot? Where is the morality in that? And, again, there is no incentive effect, we cannot alter our genes in pursuit of higher pay. Third, why should we reward schooling? Think about it. Again, there is no moral reason to pay someone more because they have learned something useful (except, of course, in proportion to the sacrifice and effort that went into the learning, which is usually rather low compared to what goes into work). Yes, we can go to school to learn more to get higher wages, but, are higher wages needed to get us to school? You don’t have to pay a lot in their later jobs to entice people to go to school now. No, the only issue is effort and sacrifice and that is what a good economy ought to allocate income in proportion to, and it is the aspect of schooling that ought to be rewarded as well.

What radical economists ought to be doing is figuring out how to organize an economy that promotes solidarity, gives people control over their own productive lives (and all others sides of their lives, too), fosters diversity, and creates equity (which includes people having fair conditions of work and fair incomes based on effort and sacrifice). And markets screw all this up, quite obviously. So, I would like some radical who has become a marketeer but who previously was not, and good candidates are Sam Bowles, or, it seems, Nancy Folbre, to explain why they are now advocating (or seeming to advocate) an institution that they once militantly and correctly, criticized.

And I think everybody else on the left—who still has eyes to see people eating out of garbage cans, and lengthening lines outside psychiatrist’s offices, and every human sentiment turned into a commodity, and unemployment’s toll on those who work and those who don’t, and human beings producing cigarettes for other human beings to smoke, and the obvious truth that the best route to a society of caring and creativity is not to demand that each person be out only for him or herself, as in markets—ought to be asking for the same explanation.

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