Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Fighting Market Fundamentalism

A professor at UC-Davis wrote a good article about counteracting the narrative of free market fundamentalism (the idea that an unregulated market will benefit all by means of the mythical invisible hand). He suggests a "moral economy" as a counter-narrative.

I completely agree with his diagnosis of the problem, and I even like the phrase "moral economy," but when he starts using Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten as a framing device I can already hear the guffaws (it's almost as bad as Lakoff's wince-inducing "mommy state" frame). Academics always have such a tin ear for what sounds persuasive to normal people.

But here are some of his better observations:

Starting in the 1930s, the Democrats employed a narrative in which an activist government overcomes the weaknesses of an unregulated market economy to achieve stability and renewed economic growth.
it is not an option for progressives simply to recycle the stories and rhetoric of the New Deal. Years of conservative dominance have undermined any notion that government can actually serve the public good. Right-wingers pointed to the pathetic federal response to Hurricane Katrina as proof that government cannot protect us. Republican corruption and ineptitude, in short, has the partially intentional function of discrediting government in general.

This pervasive anti-government crap is also connected to a long-running narrative about the futility of the 60s/70s, turning feminism and "liberal idealism" into a national joke/embarrassment.

These four principles [of a market economy]--reciprocity, responsible competition, conservation and cooperation--interact and reinforce one another to enhance a moral economy's effectiveness.
We also need bold policy ideas that would implement the principles of a moral economy. But the stories have to come first, and those stories must connect us to our nation's richest traditions. The great popular movements of our nation's history--against the slave trade, for the abolition of slavery, for women's suffrage, for trade union rights, for restraints on the power of big business in the Progressive Era, and extending to the civil rights movement, the New Left and the environmental movement--can all be understood as efforts to align our economic and political institutions with our deepest moral commitments.

Again, I like the diagnosis, but the details of his proposal seem a little iffy. To my ear, justice is the key word (especially useful because it involves both distributive justice and a sense of fair play, among other ideas).

But at the very least I agree that progressives need to talk more about free market fundamentalism and how crazy it is.

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  • At 8:12 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I've finally gotten around to reading the two year old essay "The Death of Environmentalism," and I'm beginning to think the approach may need to be one founded on an idea like "wisdom." If free-market fundamentalism is anything it is highly risky. What I am thinking of would work if it would allow us to coopt the word "conservative," projecting a vision of America as it should be more as America as it used to be before these crazy ideological radicals got hold of it and started undermining all the sober effort of our ancestors. It would fit with the current political moment, anyway. But I need to flesh out the idea further. Maybe I'll write a full post later.

  • At 8:35 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Also "wise investments" as opposed to "wasteful" or preferably "corrupt" uses of government. And long-term vs. myopic planning.

  • At 11:15 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Hm, could that be condensed into emotionally persuasive soundbites, though?

    I guess I don't know who this professor's audience was. But his Kindergarten stuff was almost as bad as whatshisface who wrote that article about framing.

  • At 11:19 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Also, don't you like distributive justice and fair play? In my mind's eye I imagine people chanting "no justice no peace" at the Diallo protests, and feel like it works for people emotionally. Tie that emotional reaction to class and ... victory.

    Of course, I'm still waiting for that super-charismatic progressive politician to lead this charge and reignite the left.

  • At 11:33 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I like it in principle, I just think the words "justice" and "fairness" are tainted for a big part of the country by association with things like the Diallo protests. With protests in general. In other words, a big part of the country has a culturally-based negative reaction to the very idea of a movement for fairness, or social justice. In part I think that happens because it's hard to talk to people about how they're oppressed and ought to be pissed off about it without having them feel like you're looking down on them. You can talk about how we're oppressed and deserve justice, but then you really better have the cred and a definite enemy to focus resentment on.

    You're thinking of Lakoff.

    And yes, kindergarten is exactly the wrong way to go. It drips condescension.

  • At 11:38 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Also "justice" and "fairness" don't work as rallying cries in a heterogenous country like ours, mainly because people are pretty racist. It inevitably gets interpreted by a whole lot of people as justice for somebody else at "my" expense. That doesn't just go for white Midwesterners, either.

  • At 12:02 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    I'm ever hopeful that progressives will be able to appeal to class consciousness across racial lines. So that in those conversations the other is the super-wealthy, not the racial other. With the right, charismatic candidate...

    Of course, two years off it looks like the likely next prez will be either a DLC centrist or a Republican.

    Did you see that Giuliani leads the Republican polls about Republican presidential contenders? My reaction to President Giuliani is something very like the reaction of redneck fundies to President Hillary.

  • At 4:48 AM, Blogger Phoebe Evergreen said…

    I don't buy that the New Deal is dead, except in communicating to media/government types. People like getting something from the government. They even don't mind paying for it as much as we've been led to believe. They do mind people who have darker skin than them getting something that they think they're paying for, but my hunch in general is that the Repub cappucino machine has a lot of Dems believing in a big mocha full of steaming hot resentment that is really just mostly froth.

  • At 2:09 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Sigh, I think you two are probably right about many people interpreting progressive redistribution of resources in crypto-race-war ways. Hopefully resentment of government is as overstated as Phoebe suggests.

    Didn't Damon get some monies to write a book about this very subject? Should I come up with a code name for Damon to protect his anonymity? Twinkletoes? I wonder how pessimistic Twinkletoes is about faith in benevolent government versus free market fundamentalism...

  • At 3:21 PM, Blogger Stroll said…

    The free market fundamentalists and libertarians who believe in the magic of the Market to make everything turn out okay make a convincing argument, to the middle class at least, that *theirs* is the moral economy. When we start talking about justice and fairness we are countered with "COMMUNISTS! *WELFARE* STATE!" and such. I guess that's what the author's trying to fix, but the public perception is hard to change, especially in a conservative middle America where for many people with relative privelige things don't seem so bad...

    Whenever I hear the word justice I think of John Rawls, and his view that nothing should ever be done in the name of justice that trumps any one persons moral rights. But I digress.

  • At 3:48 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Phoebe, you're not arguing that racism doesn't play a major role in people's resistance to arguments based on distributive justice, are you? Because we talked about this before.

    To refresh your memory:

    A second measure of civic engagement is the willingness to redistribute income. Luttmer (2001), using data from the General Social Survey and from California ballot initiatives, finds that support for redistribution is higher when the recipients are from the same racial group. Researchers have found a similar result for public education. Poterba (1997) and Harris, Evans, and Schwab (2001) report evidence of a “Florida effect” in states’ public school expenditures. In Florida the “average” taxpayer is a white senior citizen, while the typical public school student is Hispanic. In this diverse environment, there is less support for public school expenditures than in states where the students and the taxpayers are of the same ethnicity. Goldin and Katz (1999) find that a similar pattern prevailed in the past—racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and income inequality predicted state educational expenditures. Data from U.S. cities, metropolitan areas, and urban counties show that the share of spending on such productive public goods as education, roads, sewers, and trash pickup is inversely related to the area’s ethnic fragmentation, even after controlling for other socioeconomic and demographic characteristics. Not only is participation and expenditure lower in more-diverse settings, but so is trust. Self-reported levels of trust and experimental evidence document that when individuals interact with people who look like them, levels of trust in the community are higher.

  • At 5:16 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Stroll, yeah, you're right. Their sense of fair play is deeply offended by the very idea of taxation. "MY money going to THEM?!?" (by "them," imagine someone with dark skin).

    Whenever I hear the word justice I think of John Rawls, and his view that nothing should ever be done in the name of justice that trumps any one persons moral rights. But I digress.

    That is exactly who I was thinking of. In A Theory Justice, he makes a very good critique of the logical errors of free market fundamentalists. He discusses both errors within their way of thinking about market morality -- e.g., market failures and the fact that the preconditions of a properly functioning market never obtain in the real world -- and more fundamental critiques of their definition of justice and fairness.

    Sen also has a great essay about the morality of the market.

    In fact, it's a whole subfield in philosophy of economics. Too bad decisionmakers don't pay more attention to philosophers of economics.

  • At 5:19 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    AH -- I knew we (and by we I mean you) had discussed this before, but couldn't remember where (your titles are always so cryptic), so thanks for the link.


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