Political debates of late have exhibited a tendency to deteriorate into accusations of socialism from the right and free-market fundamentalism from the left. (Of course, given the remarkable similarity of the Democratic and Republican parties, I think it’s safe to say that it’s socialists and free-market fundamentalists who are probably most upset by this).
Last week, I illustrated this point by borrowing an argument from Trevor Burrus, a legal associate at the Cato Institute. Burrus observes that, on any given issue, we very generally tend to segregate into pro-state and pro-market camps. When we do so, we make our decision by selecting the side that we feel will offer us the greatest chance for meaningful participation in society. A total statist, then, might see the state as a democratic institution with equal representation for all while scorning the market as a “Darwinian” free-for-all in which the rich, evil and powerful few pillage the poor, noble and powerless many. A total market anarchist, on the other hand, could see the market as a vast, intricate, cooperative network in which individuals act on a voluntary basis, but loath the state as a clandestine organization that uses the threat of violence to siphon resources toward itself and away from the desired ends of a generally non-violent productive class. It just depends on where you’re standing. In both of these cases, though, proponents usually see themselves as freer to act, meaningfully participate and influence events under their preferred method of societal organization than they perceive they would be under the alternative.
In last week’s column, I argued that the state is only able to offer us meaningful participation when it comes at somebody else’s expense. I used the example of Friday night’s frat party to illustrate an admittedly simplified version of this point: If I want Busch Light but you prefer Natty, then each of us votes for candidates who are willing to impose our preferences on one another. (The expense is literalized when we realize that this is often accomplished by directing subsidies toward a preferred outcome and/or erecting barriers against its alternative).
At a free market frat party, however, there is no need for us to come to a universal decision on the subject of light beer. I can indulge in a nice, cold BL Smoothie while you blissfully sip a Natty and chat up a pretentious freshman toting his first six-pack of some local craft microbrew. If the taste of Busch Light for some reason begins to get old to me, I can immediately switch things up and pick out my own Natty, or Coors Light, or Bud Light, or Bud Light Platinum. I don’t need to wait two, four or six years to try to change my beer by wasting a bunch of my time trying to get people who have different preferences and scales of value than I do to agree with me, and then hoping that we can all manage to install some representative who will actually do what we want them to do, which in and of itself means keeping others from doing what they want to do. In a frat that leaves freedom of decision-making to partygoers, there is little need for elected representatives at all, since each bro can act as his own.
If this is the case, then it seems to me that those who advocate voting as an efficient and legitimate means of meaningful participation in society should be more content to leave decision-making to a marketplace full of free and independent individuals. A vote, after all, is nothing more than a mere expression of preference cast in order to influence situations toward certain desired ends. In a state election, though, each voter gets one measly vote every fixed number of years to express a variety of positions on a wide range of disparate issues. In the interim, a voter cannot effectively express a change of heart or take back a previous position; he is simply stuck with something that he used to want until the next election.
In the marketplace, however, a voter can vote many more times and in far more meaningful ways every single day. If I purchase some product, for instance, then it must certainly be the case that I am attempting to influence the outcome of certain events toward an end I desire (or otherwise I just wouldn’t have acted at all). I am, thus, essentially voting for that product. I am also voting for all of the processes of production, allocation of raw materials, systems of advertising and entrepreneurial decision-making that went into rendering that product as attractive as it is to me. On top of that, I’m even indirectly voting for all of the things that made those things themselves possible.
In all honesty, social democrats might actually appreciate this point to a greater extent—though not necessarily in quite this fashion—than many run-of-the-mill free marketeers. If a supplier behaves in ways that they do not condone, they are generally ready to boycott their products and to attempt to induce others to do the same. Their appeals to state power notwithstanding, campaigns like those launched against Wal-Mart and Chick-fil-A demonstrate market behavior as a more immediate and meaningful voting mechanism than lobbying or electioneering. (In fact, our very own Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke quite laudably explains on its website that “without a consumer demand for conflict-free products,” its aims have “little hope” of coming to fruition.)
In the end, it’s a little ironic that conventional wisdom holds the state as a voter’s paradise and the market as some winner-take-all, zero-sum game when, in both cases, it’s actually exactly the other way around. The state is a virtual desert of voting, with votes taking place so sparingly that a host of nations actually mark the occasion with a holiday, and can only give us what we want by taking it away from somebody else. The market, on the other hand, is really just the name we give to the infinite series of interrelated votes that make up our society, and allows us to coexist at least a little more peacefully by respecting and even promoting differences in personal preference.
When it comes to choosing sides in terms of the opportunity for meaningful participation, then, just ask yourself where you cast more ballots: the voting booth, or the supermarket.
Chris Bassil, Trinity ‘12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every Wednesday. This column is the second in a two-part series on society, the state and the marketplace. You can follow Chris on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.