15 June 2007

Markets: a convenient scapegoat

Family breakdown? Coarsening of public debate? Declining standards of civility? The fault of the markets, of course, according to Daniel Finkelstein.

The story of the Sixties is a story of the triumph of economic freedom, of the power of free markets to change lives and produce a more open, exciting society. So why doesn’t the Right embrace it? ... It is because the change was not all gain, by any means. There has been family breakdown, drug addiction, and a certain coarsening of public debate and deterioration in standards of civility and decency. And it is a dodge to argue that these all came from something quite separate – from an alien counterculture. They didn’t. They are in part the downside of the consumer revolution and can only be addressed by the Right if they are understood like that.
And Chris Dillow — not surprisingly, perhaps — agrees with him.
... economic growth raises people's aspirations - it encourages the belief that you can have more, "because you're worth it." This in turn creates dissatisfaction, with the result that a wife with a mediocre spouse is less likely to stand by her man. ... This could be a big part of the solution to the Easterlin paradox - the finding that economic growth doesn't make us much happier.
In a mediocracy all undesirable phenomena linked in any way to money or business are blamed reflexively on ‘markets’, in spite of the fact that the same phenomena could equally well have arisen in a planned economy. It is important for mediocrats to insist that coarsening must be due to consumerism, and not to the dominance of a lefitst ethos that encourages resentment, and hatred of bourgeois conventions. Similarly, if we have less 'social cohesion' (marriage stability, helpfulness among neighbours, etc.) this must be blamed on economic growth rather than on an ideology hostile to families and to private charity.

Experiments involving the abolition of markets having proved unworkable, it is now realised that a better way to create sustainable mediocracy is not to abolish markets but to manipulate them. Confiscating half the national product and dissipating it in useless ways, particularly in the form of wages to state employees providing spurious services, is a good way to eliminate the larger part of the potential freedom that markets create. Biasing confiscation towards the better off helps to ensure that the market reflects the preferences of the mass; and keeping the media firmly in the hands of the il-liberal elite means the views of the mass can be manipulated in appropriate directions, e.g. anti-bourgeois. The mass are thus enlisted with the cruder fruits of capitalism, while simultaneously mobilised to be critical of capitalists themselves, and to prevent the development of an intellectual leisure class — thus ensuring that the more sophisticated products of capitalism are avoided.

If culture dumbs down, this can be blamed on ‘the market’, rather than on those who represent the bulk of cultural consumption, or on the policies which inflate their economic power. Markets thus function as a useful scapegoat for cultural deterioration. This is perhaps part of the reason why mediocracy finds it expedient to retain them.