Saturday, October 17, 2009

Closet capitalist? Arthur Okun's 'Case for the Market'

I thought I was a socialist after these last three weeks of reading. By the end of Okun's 'Case for the Market' I was pretty sure I was a capitalist. More than anything, it turns out I'm impressionable. A well-written article is so damn convincing! No wonder they want us to learn how to write.

Okun's piece is, to be fair, a much better argument for the market than anything I've yet read, and puts words to some things I've felt about capitalism that I haven't quite articulated before. I have always appreciated the potential for creativity, for one, and the dynamism of the market. It's not boring. Communism, on the other hand, despite how heroic Marx and Freire make it sound, seems pretty boring.

Of course, I've never liked the way the market leaves some people out and f*s others. At least Okun doesn't pretend this isn't the case. Does he adequately account for the shortcomings of the market? No, he sidelines the issue and points out that no other system is any better, so we might as well take the one that is more efficient and offers greater freedom to a greater number of people. Okun is not an idealist.

Things I appreciate about Okun:
1) He's honest.
2) He doesn't buy the argument that everyone gets an even start in the American market economy. In fact, he says straight up: "some of the contestants get a head start while others have handicaps. Social and economic disparities among families make the race unfair."
3) He doesn't pretend that the market is great, or ethical: "Equality in the distributions of well as in the distribution of rights would be my ethical preference."

Question: Is it chickensh*t to opt for any other way than one's ethical preference?

I don't know. I suppose practical matters have to be taken into account. The idea that the shortcomings of the market are correctable, and that we might not need to dynamite the whole thing and start over, is compelling. It would certainly save a lot of trouble.

And I agree in some sense with Okun that a certain amount of inequality is, if not acceptable, unavoidable. To the extent that inequality is a result of class, history, access to resources, and so on, however, I can't abide by it.

I find entrepreneurship, innovation, and invention to be invigorating, and I have a realist streak. I am predisposed, in other words, to be sympathetic to Okun's argument. But I can't write off those that suffer in a market economy for the greater good of the majority (I'd be a paltry social worker if I could, I suppose). Okun, however, seems to suggest that a certain amount of social provision and regulation might go far. He is willing to cede many functions to government, and I wouldn't be surprised if he included health care and education among those. I bet he would also support measures to curb the effect of racism, class, gender, sexuality, etc. on one's opportunity to participate equally in the market. It could be argued that such obstacles are in fact market failures, and thus worthy of correction by direct intervention by the state. Anyway, regardless of whether he'd support these things, I would.

I want my cake and I want to eat it, too. The dynamic, creative beast that is the market is cool, except that it's also a beast and has an appetite. It eats people and natural resources. I don't mean this to sound flip. I really mean it. But if it could be tamed and its strength harnessed, that sounds worth trying. No economic system is going to be perfect, any more than any other human thing is perfect. We try our best, we flail, we adjust. The only thing that I'm against is people not caring.

And I'd prefer things not be boring.

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