September 13, 2012 columns

On Belonging to Governments or Markets

Burrus furthers the libertarian argument against the widely-held belief that we “all belong to government.”

Last week, Aaron questioned the claim made in a Democratic National Convention video that “government is the only thing we all belong to.” I certainly agree that it seems deeply odd when “anyone looks at Washington and feels a sense of belonging.” Nevertheless, the video gives us a chance to explore the concept of “belonging” and what it has to do with political theory.

Any system of social ordering that eschews consensus—that is, any system that will make people abide by a result they did not consent to, or perhaps even objected to—must be concerned with a sense of “belonging,” or what I will call a “perception of meaningful participation.” Without a perception of meaningful participation—and here perception really is what’s important—nonconsenting or objecting people likely won’t abide by the decision of the majority and may even actively try to undermine it. Social order will rapidly become social disorder.

A court of law is a useful analogy. The primary purpose of a court is not so much to resolve a dispute by discovering what really happened, but to provide a method of resolution in which both parties will abide by the result. Someone must feel that he has “had his day in court,” especially if it means respecting a decision he knows is inaccurate.

Similarly, if political systems impose the preferences of a bare majority onto an objecting minority, then the minority must feel as though they “had their day in court.” That is, that they “belong” because they meaningfully participate.

Libertarians have a unique, and some would say strange, view of the state. Whereas most tend to view the state as “us”—as a collective apparatus through which “we” make decisions on how our world will look—libertarians regard the state as “them”—an alien and possibly illegitimate association grafted onto civil society like a parasite.

As an indication of its otherness, the government will do things that seemingly no one, or at least only a small group, wants it to do. It will subsidize ethanol despite an increasing awareness of the harmful effects. It will escalate a war against marijuana users just as public acceptance of marijuana use increases.

The opposite view comes from what I will broadly call the “anti-market” side. Non-libertarians, particularly from the left side of the political spectrum, tend to view the market, not government, as “them.” The market, particularly in the form of Wall Street and international corporations, is an alien and illegitimate association grafted onto civil society like a parasite.  

Similarly, as an indication of its otherness, the market will do things that seemingly no one, or at least only a small group, wants it to do. Much beloved local stores will fall victim to big box stores imbued with vast amounts of capital derived from “foreign” sources. Meanwhile, other much-in-demand things, such as the fabled high-quality electric car, never come to market.  

For each side, the “other-sphere” derives its otherness from two main sources: 1) a general opinion that the personality traits that bring success in that sphere are not only undesirable but nearly inhuman; 2) a view that the “voucher” for participation in the other-sphere—money for markets; voting for government—is in some way inadequate.

For those who are anti-market, markets are driven by greed and self-interest. Successful market participants get there through rapacious and self-gratifying motives, entirely devoid of human sympathy and care. Although markets can produce good things, encouraging their unfettered expansion also promotes undesirable behaviors. Thus, the market is an other-sphere populated by people with anti-“belonging” dispositions.

For libertarians, the political sphere is also driven by a type of self-interest: the elitist, technocratic, and disingenuous self-interest of career politicians and bureaucrats. Politicians say and do anything to remain in office, even making statements—“I smoked marijuana, but I didn’t inhale”—that a satirist would balk at writing. Expanding the political sphere means giving such two-faced charlatans more control over our lives.

This view leads libertarians to focus more on process than partisanship and more on systemic problems than fleeting solutions. Libertarians also reserve many of their harshest words for the political classes and the illusions of influence and participation that the democratic process gives.

Second, both other-spheres offer different vouchers of participation. The anti-market crowd has understandable complaints about money as a method of participation: markets favor those with more money, people do not start out with equal amounts, and its distribution does not correlate to needs or worth, only wants and base desires.

Libertarians have similar ideas about voting as a method of participation. Many libertarians view the political process as a trial in which the average citizen does not get his day in court. Between public choice theory, Arrow’s theorem, and the rational ignorance of the average voter, democracy is a pretty ineffective way for any single person to actualize their preferences in the world. A vote is a voucher that gives you the illusion of influence in exchange for a loss of freedom.

Finally, as both the sphere of government and the sphere of the market grow, they are often accompanied by a diminishing perception of meaningful participation. First, as information accelerates, so do markets. Transactions occur at blinding speeds and seem to have a mind of their own. Both day-traders and local grocers have difficulties predicting the vicissitudes of accelerating markets.   

Moreover, expanding markets attenuate the connections between cause and effect. Distant markets in foreign countries cause our coffee to double in price overnight. Rainstorms inSouthern Floridaaffect not just the price of oranges, but also, somehow, the price of wheat, avocados, and industrial solvents.

Lastly, expanding markets brings diversification. Due to the relative scarcity of music in the 1980s, the Venn diagrams of individuals’ music tastes overlapped heavily. Now, it is very likely that if you meet a random person you’ll have almost no music tastes in common. The same is increasingly true for nearly everything: books, news sources, and movies, just to name a few. This level of diversification can decrease the perception of meaningful participation in the market by making people ask, “Who is this new singer? I’ve never even heard of him, and no one I know has heard of him.” Just as 40 year-olds feel no sense of participation in the marketplace for the current teenage fad, people increasingly feel no sense of participation in the same marketplaces as the guy who lives across the hall. More and more it seems as if we’re just leaves in the wind of market forces, along for the ride.

Of course, the expanding sphere of government can produce a similar effect. As more local choices are made by distant technocrats, as the channels of government become more labyrinthine, as our votes seem to do less to directly affect our lives, the perception of meaningful participation decreases. 

Perhaps these observations can help us better understand the other side better and realize that our frames of reference will often clash, especially in terms of the institutions to which we feel a sense of belonging.