29th July 2013
Get into a conversation with a random right-wing thinker, and it has to be a serious one at that, and at some point she will start expressing an intense conviction that the free market is the solution to all the problems we face in society. The idea is, basically, that whereas governments are oppressive and try to force minorities into laws willed by majorities, the free market provides space, is creative, and, above all, voluntary.
The voluntary character of the market will make sure that the best ideas win. People are free to engage in cooperative ventures with each other. They can enter into contracts to use their ideas, their labour and their property in order to produce beautiful things. Most theorists and politicians who endorse this view, believe it is the only system that does justice to the fundamental, natural rights of people not to be curtailed in their liberty by others.
Often, right-wing thinkers believe as well that when society is organized in this free way, it will have the effect that people learn how to deal with their freedom. How could they learn if they never got to try…? Like Robert Nozick says: “Believing with Tocqueville that it is only by being free that people will come to develop and exercise the virtues, capacities, responsibilities, and judgments appropriate to free men, that being free encourages such development, and that current people are not close to being so sunken in corruption as possibly to constitute an extreme exception to this, the voluntary framework is the appropriate one to settle upon” (Nozick, p. 328).
Now, I have to admit, that sounds lovely on paper. If we are all free to live and work with the people we feel connected to, whether empathically or professionally, and we will all in fact do so in peace and harmony, the word will be great. Yet this requires a very optimistic view on what people are like, a view I fear is unjustified, looking at the world, and reading for example the work of Naomi Klein. One might even say that the right-wing, libertarian thinkers are the naïvely idealistic people of our time, which is more or less what Hans Achterhuis argues in De utopie van de vrije markt (The Utopia of the Free Market). They are even more so, because they think we should create this society completely, and not just halfheartedly, because the hybrid form of society, which has a moderately free market, is scary and dangerous, and will eventually, if not immediately, violate people’s rights.
Well, what can I say? I think they are wrong. I think arguing for laissez-faire capitalism is itself dangerous. Not because the ideal is rotten – I think it is not – but because the conception of the person in laissez-faire capitalism is much too optimistic. People will not become moral heroes just like that. One look at the free trade zones in countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia should tell us enough. In other words: it will not work.
Today, I found an example that nicely illustrates what I mean. Apparently, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes thinks net neutrality is safer in the hands of the market than in the hands of governments. Whatever her actual, precise standpoint, what I thought was interesting is this reaction to Kroes’ plans. The author thinks commercializing the net will lead to “mass manipulation of citizens by the power elite of the EU”. How? Because commercial, main-stream parties will start dominating the net, whereas small, non-commercial, critical voices will sink down into the dark depths of the internet.
Funnily enough, the arguments the angry author of that article makes are pretty much the same arguments right-wing thinkers give against the scary, dangerous, hybrid form of society (or any other kind which is not laissez-faire capitalism). They both think endorsing this or that system will lead to the oppression of critical minorities and violation of their rights.
What should we conclude, then? Which system should we be in favour of? I think no system will be capable of solving all our problems. For in the end, the problems are created by power-lusty people who exploit others and use them as means to certain goals, whether large- or small-scale. It is those immoralities we will have to combat if we want to create a better world. The one system might better accommodate this quest than the other, true. But, however beautiful an ideal, I think it is most certainly not laissez-faire capitalism. So maybe we should just stick with some scary, dangerous, hybrid form of society for a while, keep publishing critical articles, and see where it leads us.