Whither the Social Contract?

by on November 5, 2008 · 11 comments

Geese are flying overhead. Leaves are orange. The election is over. A historic moment. And I will be optimistic, and hope that although the economics of the moment seems to be a return to things past… to the 1930s, it will turn out to be otherwise, for a good bit is known now that was not known then, whatever one’s ideology.

This column offering thoughts from Europe anticipates a wave of hostility to free markets. Well, that would perhaps not be that much of a change. I will venture far out on a doctrinal limb here, why not, and venture to ask where the free marketers went wrong? [Wait, you mean that they did something wrong? Can that be possible? Surely not]. (There is a good bit that went wrong, of course, that is not the fault of markets or their advocates… the fact that markets are not perfect, problems with rent-seeking, the fondness of the press for dwelling on the negative, and so on). But there have been consistent problems with our presentation, which I diagnose as follows:

-Use of nineteenth century models and rhetoric, and too much movement jargon, much of which is pointlessly disparaging and negative.

-Failure to empathize with people’s real concerns, such as concern about the environment or income disparity. There is the perennial addiction of wonks to Reason-and our awkwardness with emotion that leads us to dismiss it as irrelevant. Makes it look like we don’t care–a false impression, but a real factor none-the-less.

-Specializing in the defense of unpopular causes, whether it is free speech, the super-rich, or the large company of the day. Advocates tend to focus on these causes in the hope of getting attention as contrarians-but as a result the image of advocates for the market becomes identified with unpopular interests, and our energy gets expended in short run battles.

The solution? Well, I’ll save that for another day.

Meanwhile, how about this for a thought? In recognition of the nation’s leaning to the left, I’ll make a concession. Have some social programs. Have all the social programs you want. But there is one thing that I will insist on. Just one thing.

Y’all will have to be ruthlessly honest about how well the programs actually work. About the unintended consequences. About the rules that pile up costs with no benefits. About the forces and factors that lead institutions like public schools or regulatory agencies to fail.

If you can just manage a genuine curiousity about whether the plans that you dream up to help people will actually work, then we’ve got a deal. I promise that if the programs don’t work, we can try something else. Institutional re-design. Heck, maybe even a market.

But I don’t think anyone’s going to go for it.

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