Julian on Non-Market Cooperation

by on July 13, 2007 · 2 comments

As is typical, Julian makes a point I’ve been trying to make for a while, only it sounds a lot more eloquent when he says it. In reply to Brian Doherty’s argument that those who decry commercialism while using the products of capitalism are somehow hypocritical, Julian says:

Certainly very few Burners would last a week in the Nevada desert without many of the products of commerce, but it just doesn’t follow that the desire for a temporary commercial-free zone is therefore somehow hypocritical or steeped in “performative contradiction.” It is perfectly coherent to be a thoroughgoing free-marketeer, to appreciate how deftly the price system harnessed the self-love of thousands of individuals, from lumberjacks and miners to carpenters and plumbers, in order to produce your local church—and yet still prefer that Starbucks refrain from opening up shop in the narthex. Having bought prophylactics at the corner deli in the evening does not forbid you from taking umbrage if your lover leaves a fifty on the nightstand the following morning. The most ardent capitalist will want a few spaces where she can feel confident that her neighbor’s friendliness is not the opening gambit in a pitch to sell her a T-shirt, even if she was happy to buy the one she’s wearing. We are entitled to happily engage the butcher, the brewer, and the baker on the basis of our respective self-loves while hoping for a little benevolence from our brothers, our bowling buddies, and our Burners.

These sentiments are as natural and ubiquitous as a more generalized disdain for markets is stupid and misguided. So why bother trying to equate the two? Why reinforce the notion that embracing a “market society” means embracing “markets in everything”? Ninety percent of this piece is dead on target, but someone who cherishes relatively commercial-free spaces like Burning Man could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that he’s being asked to reject that feeling as benighted or confused. Which would be unfortunate, since it would have been as easy to stress not the contradiction but the complementarity between the free-market and market-free arenas—a message I’d expect the skeptical Burner to more readily accept.

Quite right. Burning Man fits among the non-commercial but non-coercive activities I listed at the end of my article on libertarians and free software: private universities, think tanks, unions (providing membership is voluntary), churches, charities, sports teams. None of these institutions are primarily organized around markets, and in many cases they’re better for it.

Markets are a very powerful tool, but they’re not the most appropriate tool in every circumstance. It has many advantages, but some disadvantages too. It’s just as silly for libertarians to attack people who voluntarily choose not to make use of the market in some aspect of their lives as it is for those on the left to attack people who do choose to use the market. We don’t think it’s strange that churches choose not to charge admission or sell indulgences. Why is it any stranger that the developers of the Linux kernel or the organizers of Burning Man would adopt rules that prohibit certain kinds of commercial transactions within their private, voluntary organization?

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    The other point that could be made (and I haven’t read Julian’s article) is that the question could be asked: do these ‘non-market’ activities make markets better?

    Even if everyone benefits to some degree from a given market structure, it is still fair to ask “Is this the best possible outcome, for all parties?”

    In some cases, for doing some things, some find markets wanting. So spontaneous creation of non-market structures happens.

    The left (these days at least) usually does not attack people for using the market, but for abusing people. That abuse is often facilitated by very distorted market structures created by and for the current political powers. The left has been moving beyond from criticism of the market itself for quite some time. See: Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. http://www.natcap.org

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    The other point that could be made (and I haven’t read Julian’s article) is that the question could be asked: do these ‘non-market’ activities make markets better?

    Even if everyone benefits to some degree from a given market structure, it is still fair to ask “Is this the best possible outcome, for all parties?”

    In some cases, for doing some things, some find markets wanting. So spontaneous creation of non-market structures happens.

    The left (these days at least) usually does not attack people for using the market, but for abusing people. That abuse is often facilitated by very distorted market structures created by and for the current political powers. The left has been moving beyond from criticism of the market itself for quite some time. See: Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. http://www.natcap.org

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