Friday, May 27, 2016

mind open or closed?

I wish to criticize Freemarketeers vs. Wealth by Tjaart Blignaut 
using the method described by Daniel Dennett (that he attributes to Anatole Rappoport). In the first step I should summarize the piece charitably, to demonstrate to what degree I understand the intended message.
The piece makes a case for the idea that economic arrangements result from social choice, that they exist at the pleasure of society and society may change them and should change them if given good reasons, especially moral reasons. Markets serve as means to distribute wealth, but other arrangements could replace them. Such arrangements determine who has wealth and who does not on the basis of moral principles and our subjective evaluations, as distinct from any objective facts regarding persons. The author compares feudalism to capitalism, showing that they share this basis of moral approval but claims that feudalism was abandoned when it lost its moral legitimacy. Social arrangements should work to reduce harm and suffering among persons. Free markets (at least, their most rigid supporters) press their luck by allowing some to acquire great wealth without necessarily earning it fairly. Those who have done well under this system by playing fair have to concern themselves that everyone be treated fairly, or risk social unrest and perhaps abrupt and disorienting change. Supporters of free markets increase this risk if they favor ideology over reality and reframe failure as punishment for laziness rather than the result of bad luck or exploitation. When markets fail we must consider alternatives, but some refuse. They are surprised to hear Elizabeth Warren tell them "You didn't build that!" Certainly they can lose it, if their minds remain closed.

So ends my paraphrase. Now I should recount what I have learned from the text. I hope it doesn't sound too conceited to say I don't think I learned much from it. In my defense, I don't think the author felt he was providing a profound new insight. Rather he felt inspired to remind us of what he sees as a simple, clear truth that too many ignore.

Now, following Dennett and Rappoport's formula, I should reveal any area of agreement, while trying to avoid damning myself by praising faintly. The author shows a degree of familiarity with the concept of subjective economic value. He willingly considers the possibility that our society may need to change on moral grounds, in order to avoid unnecessary suffering. He denounces closed minds and narrow thoughts. I agree that the market supporters sometimes take a rigid approach that is harmful to their own purpose. He shows concern for others and for the stability of society. That sounds good to me.

Now, having performed the proper ritual of empathy, I get to quibble.
"Any wealth you receive has already been distributed at least once based on the decided structure and nature of wealth distribution in your society."
The phrase "decided structure" is awkward, but becomes clearer as he goes on.

"So people who are wealthy are not wealthy because they create some sort of objective value in society, they are wealthy because society decides that they are the ones who morally deserve to be wealthy. The concept of wealth is intersubjective, and so is the decision about who gets to be."
This personifies society, making it the subject that decides. The author does not describe the process by which society makes such a decision, what form its consciousness takes or the nature of its reflection. Is this just a metaphor or should we take it literally? His text contains a tension between subjectivity and intersubjectivity, between conscious and unconscious.
Language is my favorite example of a phenomenon that is determined intersubjectively. The meanings of words  and the ways we put them together are arbitrary, based on historical accident and subject to arbitrary change. Yet there are rules of syntax and we manage (often enough) to understand what we say to each other. This process makes use of the mind of every user of language, yet we have no conscious control over it. Things change, but should we think of them as decisions? Only if we wish to personify this process. Does his approach make his meaning more clear or less? 
Is it the concept of wealth that is intersubjective, or just what may represent wealth at one point of history or another? Wealth is no more intersubjective than any other abstract concept, rooted in language and our common experience. So what is the author's point? Perhaps this distraction misses the point, which might be, what wealth is and who has wealth is something that can change suddenly and surprisingly.

"Free markets are a method to distribute wealth."
Here we see several unfortunate rhetorical choices. "Free markets" do not exist.  Various bureaucracies attempt to control white markets through regulation; and police attempt to eliminate black markets. Calling ordinary markets "free" markets invites us to ignore all the differences among markets and the numerous non-market interventions into each. 
Referring to markets as a "method to distribute wealth" personifies society, as if society as a whole (or perhaps a group of legislators?) acted consciously and deliberately in each case, and the market is their method for achieving their end. Rather, markets provide a context in which all persons can produce and exchange goods among themselves, each serving a particular end of their own. Distribution of wealth occurs as a side-effect of this process.
We can restrict our view of markets until we see only distribution, but only by hiding other important aspects. The market is not a conduit between some cornucopia that spills out wealth for the market to distribute fairly or unfairly. Markets do not merely distribute wealth, but rather allow us to create and exchange wealth, they do not just divide the pie but help us to make the pie bigger and bake it. 

"There can be other methods too."
I am curious what the author has in mind. He mentions feudalism, which does have some proponents on the Internet, but I don't think anyone takes them particularly seriously. Other more explicitly non-market societies have existed, so I must agree markets are not inescapable. 

"The feudal system existed because it was recognized as morally legitimate and for no other reason."
At first I wanted to disagree, but can I? To the extent it is true, it is a tautology; the social arrangements and the conception of morality move together, but which is the cause and which the effect? Or were they both effects of a separate cause?

"if a free market fails us in an ethical way, it is our moral duty to violate it as a society."
Can we say this about any other social institution or custom? Or do markets alone bear this mark?

"This means that in a moral society, excess wealth may be allowed,  but not at the expense of others suffering."
What is the difference between excess wealth and non-excess? Since wealth could in any case be used to attempt to reduce suffering, this statement means that no excess wealth may be allowed so long as suffering exists. According to the Buddha, existence is suffering; does this mean no excess wealth? I'd like to help him, but I genuinely do not know what he intends to say here. Suffering is bad, certainly, but where do we draw the line?

"Indeed this is one of the reasons feudalism fell. We could no longer morally justify the harm of placing wealth into the hands of the few."
This was the reason for the highland clearances, the British enclosure acts and the building of the "satanic mills?" I'm not much of an historian, but I don't think this is right. I am surprised to learn that the author was personally involved in the fall of feudalism.

"[T]he free market [...] promotes the distribution of wealth to those who can exploit its underlying subjective nature."
Is this flaw a transcendent attribute of markets, or a result of the legislation that creates the rules markets work within, or the quality of the enforcement of these rules? 

"An inferior product could very well make someone rich if they play the market the right way."
Personally, I usually prefer inferior products, since I am a cheapskate. Presumably the author intends us to think of products that disappoint the customer by not living up to the sales pitch.

"There is no natural or transcendent entitlement attached to that."
If "that" is fraud, I agree.

"If everyone ceased to recognize the value of someone's wealth, they would be destitute."
This confuses me. Take Bill Gates as an example. Are we recognizing the value of his wealth right now? Perhaps the author means that if we all decided we hate Bill Gates, he would be ostracized and all his money would do him no good? Or does he mean that ordinary shares of Microsoft stock would sell at the ordinary price, but not shares sold by Bill Gates? Or perhaps, if no one recognized his property rights, then Bill Gates would no longer be able to possess any wealth? That last one makes a bit more sense. But why use the strange phrase "recognize the value"? I must be missing something.

"We, as a society, are the masters of who gets what."
Okay, why don't we, as a society, do something different? Despite his talk of intersubjectivity, the author is personifying society again. Society does not choose as a single entity. This is a major challenge of social science, to attempt to understand the interactions between the level of the individual thought and action and the level of social outcome.

"It's vital to understand that wealth distribution is completely arbitrary"
Except that it is not. It is arbitrary but not completely arbitrary. We may not choose any distribution we wish, and any possible distribution has profound implications for other aspects of society. The distribution of wealth is as much (or more) an effect of those phenomena as their cause. Yet we ignore them here. Why? The author does not wish to defend his assumptions. He focuses on his target.

"and decided by us,"
I suppose what he really means is, things can change if enough people get annoyed. 

"and that no single person or even a group can claim that there is only one way, or even one right way."
Emphatic agreement! If only the author truly embraced this insight. The subtext of his entire article shouts the opposite, though perhaps for the best possible reasons. The author's point of non-negotiation is human suffering. But obviously we may disregard anyone advocating for more suffering. So, the author has discovered a transcendent truth after all! 

"Among the best ways however, every single one of them must be justified by moral considerations."
My translation: utilitarianism beats deontology. 

"If we are not a moral society who hold each others' interests at heart, we are setting ourselves up for failure,"
At that level of abstraction, I must agree. I doubt that we have the same thing in mind, though.

"just like the privileged strata did before their social system imploded."
Are we discussing feudalism again? To whom does the "privileged strata" refer?

"[ free markets have ] gained overzealous fundamentalist followers, who incorrectly conflate morality with free markets."
IOW, they disagree with the author. Since we do not know the specifics, we can't be sure which side the fundamentalists take, or whether they take both sides.

"if the free market fails and people suffer, that is ethically preferable to violating the tenets of free markets."
At this level of abstraction, who can disagree? But who knows what he is talking about? The author implies that the tenets of free markets have no moral content, that violating them will harm no one. (Or actually, that the harm to some would be overcompensated by the benefit to others.) Which tenets does he mean?

"They rely on a central premise, that a free market, and absolute claims to property, are morally above any other consideration."
I doubt any of them, if asked to state their central premise, would give an answer resembling this. What is an absolute claim to property? Does this imply that there is a relative claim to property? I know what property is and I know what a claim is, but add these adjectives and I no longer know what the author means.

"It's not that they think the free market is moral, it is that they think the free market is morality itself."
Would even a Randian claim that? I call straw man. That seems to say that they believe there are no moral issues beyond the moral issues involved with the market. Rand and Hoppe come closest to this caricature in my mind, but they still aren't that close. Perhaps the author conflates morality and legality? He could make a good case that some think that the free market is legality itself. Morality is larger than either markets or legalities. 

"society decided that they are entitled to the wealth they have, "
Personification again. What literal meaning can we give this, other than social customs and laws exist that define who owns what, together with agencies that enforce the laws, resulting in outcomes that ordinary persons either tolerate or do not?

"explain this fundamental error in freemarketeer ideology."
I am frustrated that he has discovered a fundamental error, but has not revealed it to us. Perhaps we shall see it soon.

"[Thought that] claims to wealth are absolute and inherent in nature or transcendent somehow. They aren't."
Even transcendent claims can be violated, can't they? I need to go polish up my Kant.

"If everyone believes that free markets are the only right way to distribute wealth, the decision to recognise it as such was still taken collectively, and it is still grounded in humanity."
Society does not necessarily obey even the powerful. Is that the point?

My attempt to make an optimistic, charitable and creative reading of the author's text leads me to think his message gives a warning to persons whose minds are closed. He does not seek to condemn markets, but inflexibility and resistance to reform, improvement and innovation. But his take on humanity seems a bit unsophisticated. How does he think rationality works? What are the psychological factors underneath the phenomena he regrets? Why don't people heed reason and evidence? When faced with "unreasonable" opposition, people often give in to the temptation to see their opponents as evil, lazy or stupid. This makes good preparation for war, but not for dispassionate inquiry. Recent developments in psychology are beginning to outline a more reasonable explanation, rooted in cognitive biases with origins in our evolutionary environment. So we may hope that things will improve, because we now know more than we did and may be able to apply this knowledge. But brain enhancement challenges our creativity and resources, so don't expect nirvana too soon.

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