16 February 2012

The Rotten Eggs of the Ostrich

There's an old economists' joke about three people, a physicist, a chemist, and an economist, marooned on a deserted island. They've got three cans of food and have set themselves to getting them open. The physicist says that they could try to drop rocks onto the cans from a tree and hope to break open the cans. The chemist wonders if they could light a fire and burst open the cans with the heat. The economist, however, knows the true solution. 'Assume a can opener,' he says...

The can opener cited by the ostriches of libertarianism is the even distribution of power between the parties to trade. In their magical worldview, every transaction is entered into with complete knowledge by two rational parties operating on a level playing field. From this fantasy flows the article of faith that all transactions are to the equal benefit of all parties, and that all parties of interest are directly represented in the transaction. The only friction possible is the result of evil coercion or bumbling inefficiency by the dreaded government.

That this is not true is hardly the point. Frictions are everywhere. Coercion can be committed by private parties. There is indeed a commons. All of these simple truths are outside the libertarian's model. Indeed, they are sacrificed on the holy altar of property rights and individual liberty, during the libertarians' mass, immediately before the blessed incantation, 'You're on your own, pal.'

That which is tidily dressed up as liberty and freedom is, at the end of the day, simply a desperate grip on the status quo, the maintenance of which is the only firm belief of this species of ostrich. What is left to inference is that liberty and freedom, to the libertarian, are commodities like any other, the just allocation of which can be only be to the highest bidder.

There consists a slight variant on the 'level playing field' canard. Some libertarians welded to a particularly acute manifestation of the fantasy argue that those who wield mighty economic power over their fellows, and are thus able to transact in a manner which is spectacularly self-advantageous, can only do so because society, in its only true libertarian expression, the market, has deemed them to be of greater value than their fellows. Such is the moral bankruptcy endemic to this worldview.

The libertarian ostrich is a hearty beast, however. It attaches itself like a barnacle to economic power, and is staggeringly resilient in the face of such natural predators as downturns, empiricism, and moral reasoning. It's found the can opener, it's sure to tell you. If you can't see it, your head must be above the sand.

No comments:

Post a Comment