January 17, 2012

Markets Cannot Serve as Political Arbiters

Two interesting items of note:

Item1. The conservative columnist George Will recently wrote a column in which he argued that liberalism’s (as a form of governance) penchant for seeking to correct the “distribution of wealth produced by consensual market activities” is responsible for the nation’s most important political problems. These have created, Will contends, strong advocacy lobbies that continue to demand benefits even when these are not in the broader public’s interest. In Will’s view, government is itself creating the nation’s most intransigent political difficulties because of its unwise willingness to intervene in the appropriate “consensual” workings of markets.

Item 2. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has responded to criticisms of his past activities as the chief executive of a private equity firm by arguing in part that any such disparagement should be off limits as it is un-American and Anti-Republican to criticize anyone who bears risk to get ahead in our nation. Many leading figures in the national GOP establishment have agreed with his critique of those raising concerns about his record as a private firm (read market) executive and asked the offending candidates to stop their criticism.

In each of these arguments, the market is set up as sacrosanct. Neither Will nor Romney’s contention acknowledges that markets are imperfect and that democracies aim to secure equality, itself a contested construct, and not simply to maximize wealth for those already positioned neatly to benefit. If market excesses are to be regulated on behalf of the commons, only governments are positioned to do so. What they should do to realize such aspirations is rightly the province of argument, as are on whose behalf they should act and why. If seniors now are gaining undue benefits from politics, as Will argues, it remains for the political process to rein in the excesses. If, as many in the GOP contend, the poor are garnering too many benefits from government action, their claims, too, should be pressed in the political process. In either case, notably, there is no implicit or explicit supposition that government has no role to play in securing a just society, or that market outcomes should a priori be considered just. Rather than set markets as the arbiter of just outcomes and bedrock social values, such a contention suggests instead that the community, represented in politics and not in commerce, should be its arbiter.

In short, one may argue that government ought to shift policy actions or change course in expenditure patterns without assuming or contending that the market should or can supplant politics as the arbiter of such concerns in a democratic society. To argue otherwise, now commonplace, especially among conservatives, is to assign the market the role properly allocated the people in a democratic society. So stated, the problem with arguments such as those advanced by Will and Romney is not that they would debate policy concerns, but that they assign the market an inappropriate role in democratic society. The market, just as government, should be a subject of broad interest and its appropriate workings and reach fitting subjects of political debate. To suggest otherwise is not only to misunderstand the role of government in democratic society, but also to risk undermining the very possibility of such governance. Setting markets as ultimate arbiters of justice may be alluring in its simplicity, but that contention prevents citizens from wrestling with the concerns most vital to a democratic society. It also misses the essential reality that markets are the handmaiden of democratic politics and of freedom, and not their arbiter or guarantor.  In a democracy, only the people may assume that high responsibility, however uneven and messy their processes of doing so may be.

About the Author

Max Stephenson Jr.

Max Stephenson, Jr. presently serves as Professor of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. He has published widely on policy, civil society and governance concerns. He is the author most recently, with Laura Zanotti, of Peacebuilding through Community-Based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities, Kumarian Press (2012) and editor with Laura Zanotti of Building Walls and Dissolving Borders: The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space. Ashgate Publishers, 2013.

Max Stephenson Jr.

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