Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Market and the Ballot (2)

As I suggested two days ago, the Market is great for reflecting individual choice in the present. It can be distorted by advertising campaigns - people buying a particular car or drink or footwear because they've bought the message that it'll make them young and popular and sexy and trendy, perhaps, when in fact it can't deliver most of these things - but customer pressures do quite often go against what the producers or retailers might like.

The question of what should be left to individual choice can usually be settled through John Stuart Mill's test. Does your choice hurt someone else (or, we might now add, for example drive a species extinct)? Some things cannot be settled by a series of separate individual choices: in my post on the dangers of being customer-centred, I gave an example of a controversy over proposals to cut down some trees in a public park. It is not possible for all the different users to have what they want, so a much-despised thing called politics intervenes to make a collective decision. As I suggested in that post, a danger of a zealous market approach to public services and decisions is that it undermines the understanding of community decision-making and co-operation and creates the expectation that individuals should always be able to get what they want; and when they don't, they turn against politics and democracy. Our species developed as a social animal making collective decisions: it's an essential part of being human.

Where an individual choice can be made without harming others though, as in a frail old person deciding to spend on making her garden accessible rather than on improvements within the house, it's of course far better than professionals deciding for her.

I am not usually one for conspiracy theories (they have abounded through history and very few of the alleged conspiracies have gained any support from evidence subsequently coming to light), I do suspect that behind the populist campaigns of the Murdoch press, for example, is a wish to denigrate public service, politics and democracy, not to bring in dictatorships, but to make people happy to see collective democratic decision-making replaced wherever possible by the market.

So would there be a problem? In some areas, yes - as if we can't understand the processes of debate and compromise that lead to a decision on that public park or library, we may end up with no public parks or libraries, only charged-for services far more accessible to the rich than the poor.

A few years back, two radical right Conservative writers embarked on a  series of articles on land and housing policy. They actually came up with some good points, such as that German local authorities' greater powers to raise local income from business led to more balanced decisions on building proposals; but in advocating the abolition of land planning, they proposed, in some detail, that government should not intervene in issues of wildlife habitat protection. If enough people wanted some marshes preserved for wildlife, they said, they could join the RSPB or whatever, pay subscriptions and donate, and their economic power would be measured against that of the developer.  Now this proposal was mad for several reasons, but I want to concentrate on one. Whereas in democracy everyone has one vote, to influence public decisions, in a free market power equates to spending power. A million people of modest means could support an organisation trying to establish or preserve a nature reserve and be "outvoted" by one billionaire or by a corporation made rich by consumers who would never have been consulted on the nature reserve and might be horrified at its destruction. The extreme pro-market approach is simply grossly inegalitarian: it assumes that the more money you have, the more power you should have in a straightforward relation: a hundred times the money,  a hundred times the power.

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