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Markets and Libertarian Individualism

July 14, 2009

This isn’t really a well-developed thought so much as a knot I can sort of sense but can’t put my finger on (this happens to me a lot). I’d love to hear if it rings true or if it seems like nonsense, so please comment!

I tend to find that defenses of capitalism, on the one hand, involve arguments about how free markets systematically work to serve the interests of everyone. On the other hand, these arguments are often joined with libertarian claims that portray social relations as always between one free individual and another free individual—each of whom is apparently completely independent of one another and all other individuals (i.e., the myth of the even playing field).

What we end up with is an argument that posits both that systematic relations are at work shaping individuals and individual choices and that individuals are completely free of systematic relations. If this isn’t a contradiction—perhaps it can be resolved?—it is a least a serious tension.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2009 12:23 pm

    I think you are over-simplifying the libertarian position and eliding the difference between that and “systematic relations,” a phrase that I find uncomfortably vague. I think the libertarian would argue that you should be independent of others in what you choose to do, but that you may not be in practice. The libertarian position likes the free market because it offers economic freedom from a bottom-up point of view.

    More broadly about capitalism – I’d like to examine more closely the idea that capitalism, just like any other system, often relies on a utopian image of itself to win arguments. I think you touch on this in your “serious tension” – there is not an even playing field, for example. Additionally, I am bothered by “system externalities” aka colonialism, which it appears may be needed to support the system…
    (When I say ‘I’d like to examine…,’ I mean I haven’t done this yet but am interested in the idea)

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 14, 2009 2:13 pm

    Hi Think MPS! Thanks for commenting!

    In response to you comment, I’d like to make a clarification. What I was trying to suggest is that one argument for free markets is the invisible hand type of argument—when the government doesn’t interfere a natural market system will take over, according to which supply and demand will set prices in ways that work to everyone’s benefit. But to say this requires a commitment to the idea that individuals in a free market system are acting in predictable, systematic ways. That is, a commitment to this position simultaneously commits one to the view that individuals are not free-floating separate entities. In fact, if you sell a product whose price was set by supply and demand, you, as an individual, didn’t set that price—the SYSTEM did. Therefore it seems inconsistent for someone to hold this view AND hold the libertarian view that individuals SHOULD BE independent of one another, particularly because the supply and demand model insists that they can’t be!

    Does that shed any light on what you said in your first paragraph?

    I like the idea that systems rely on utopian (i.e., imaginary and impossible?) images in their self-defense.

    On system externalities: I agree that this probably happens but I’ve yet to see a knock down argument for it.

  3. July 14, 2009 2:53 pm

    I like this thought. The only counter I can think of off the top of my head is that a libertarian might suggest that the so-called “system” is an abstraction used to refer to a group of freely acting individuals, as opposed to the suggestion that the “system” is an emergent or supervenient property of the conglomeration of people. In such an conceptualization I suppose you could say that the “system” doesn’t actually do anything, it’s just lots and lots of free individuals doing things. Of course that seems like bunk to me, but someone might suggest it.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 14, 2009 4:34 pm

    I think there’s definitely a tension, and it’s resolved by specific interpretations of ‘autonomous individual’ and ‘social system’. Individual choice is forced into a very clear, very precise framework – choosing rationally between any pair of alternatives the one that most advances your ‘utility’ – such that it then fits together perfectly into the ‘social system’ of the free market.

    Of course, the ‘autonomous individual’ doesn’t look much like many actual individuals, and the ‘social system’ doesn’t really do most of the things that actual social systems do, but at least they allow two incredibly optimistic arguments in opposite directions to be put together without contradiction!

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