Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The mysteries of markets

The good folks at Crooked Timber once again provide fodder for thought, and once again it's John "Make the Rich Pay" Quiggan who's churning it out. Here he is opining about "interesting intellectual evolution":

There is, I think, room for a version of liberalism/social democracy that is appreciative of the virtues of markets (and market-based policy instruments like emissions trading schemes) as social contrivances, and sceptical of top-down planning and regulation, without accepting normative claims about the income distribution generated by markets.
Which, given the context, no doubt is evidence of an evolution, even is it's only venturing onto land. The comments provided more fun, with one thinking the above description "would describe all but the far end of the American left" and then JQ characterizing his own passage as a "Rorschach blot", which he thinks means "I'm on to something, but I don't know what". The last clause, at least, is clearly true.

What he's onto, though, may be a concise illustration of the basic incoherence of the strategy of the so-called "Third Way" ("strategy", as opposed to pragmatic tactics, note). I tried to suggest that in a comment myself:
Whether Third Way, Fourth Way, or Nth Way, though, you may find that you’ll have a bit of a problem in accepting markets, etc. as “social contrivances” while rejecting the resulting income distribution. Unless of course you simply intend to ignore “normative claims” altogether. A vexing problem, no? Markets work well, or seem to, but for reasons that we don’t understand, and their outcomes are always so not fair….
But that was maybe a bit too cryptic for that neighborhood. To explain: markets only work, even as "social contrivances", because of the income distributions they generate. If you reject such distributions then you're essentially rejecting markets and their accompanying virtues. If, on the other hand, you accept the virtues of markets, then that alone is a "normative claim" -- calling them "social contrivances" doesn't get you out of the dilemma, since any and all social structures/processes can be so described. What's happening is that there are two distinct "normative claims" being asserted -- a socialist one, in which goods and services are literally "distributed" by some one or group on the basis of some notion of fairness; and a market-based one, in which goods and services are simply traded and not "distributed" in any but a metaphoric sense. And therein lies the incoherence.

On a practical level it's quite true that we routinely mix and match these kinds of claims, meaning that we routinely adulterate whatever non-market claims there are in order to obtain some benefits from market virtues for some, and then we routinely adulterate those market virtues in order to obtain some other "normative claim" as defined by ... well, we're never exactly sure. Messy, as the real world always is. But we can respect the practicalities of the situation -- social inertia, dependencies of various sorts, etc. -- while still working toward a resolution of the incoherence. In other words, we can choose fundamentally between working toward a First Way, or toward a Second Way, but striving toward a Third Way is the pursuit of a mirage.


  1. AS I said, M-morf, no need to worry about JQ and the CT gang like quoting Marx or the Little Red Book, or even the likes of Galbraith. Heck, I've yet to see any pro-union writing, historical or economic appear on CT-Co.

    They're Keynesian types, or at least the econo-people are. And what's the difference between like Keynesians (neo or otherwise) and supply sider, biz. major types, M-m? Generally comes down to frat boys arguing in college pubs about a few percentage points, whether interest rates or capital gains taxes, "smart" investing, etc.

  2. Well, they're primarily academics, J -- they've got "higher" things to think about than pro-union writing. And, yes, they're generally too comfortable to be zealots. I think you're right that they've pretty much abandoned "socialism", in favor of vaguer and less worrisome terms like "social democracy". I think they like to think of themselves as "progressives", in a broad enough sense to embrace an eager Keynesianism or anything that calls for a greater role for the state, in the economy or in people's lives generally. My point in this post is just to point out how muddled, not to say sinister, this sort of strategy is, as strategy -- socialism, by comparison, was at least a coherent objective, however mistaken.


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