Freedom isn’t free (part 2)

Well, that was certainly an election. One of the things about the current political climate that’s most frustrating to me and I think ultimately most dangerous for the health of our democracy is the meme of free-market fundamentalism. I generally think of “meme” as kind of a lame term, and I’m leery of metaphors that equate ideas with viruses or diseases, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s a strain of free-market fundamentalism circulating in the body politics that certain groups, politicians, and parties are more or less susceptible to at different times and in different circumstances.

Only the latest example is kind of a silly one, but symptomatic. A group of Tea Party supporters in Fountain Hills, Arizona are upset about a proposed new method of municipal trash collection because it goes against free-market principles. Not because it costs too much, not because it’s inefficient, not because users weren’t consulted before the change was made (if any of those is even the case) – but on principle, because it consolidates from several carriers to one, and that smacks of “collectivism” or “socialism.” Again, kind of a silly example, but one that’s symptomatic of a broader tendency to view government vs. markets in simple, dichotomous, asymmetric terms, as essentially good vs. evil.

Now there are two things that always get my goat about this. One won’t surprise you given the content of this blog, the other may. The one is, governments and markets are not a dichotomy, they’re symbiotic. Markets need governments to establish and enforce the ground rules, including property rights, terms of trade, and a legal system. What’s more, governments often help markets get going by limiting the initial terms of competition and establishing a playing field in which market actors emerge. A view of the world in which “the market” is a timeless, placeless, yet omnipresent and naturally occurring phenomenon obscures the fact – the fact – that markets are made.

OK, that’s not too surprising given what I’ve been writing on this blog. But the other thought that these topics recurrently provoke for me is the way a form of market thinking can actually be liberating in its depersonalizing of conflict. The arm’s-length, transactional approach to human relations enacted in markets can sometimes be a corrective to the tribalist, hyper-personalized approach embodied in many traditional cultures and ways of life. This is the flip side of one of the undertheorized elements of market relations – how they corrode traditional customs and ways of life.

I say “undertheorized” because we have plenty of examples, so it’s not an understudied phenomenon – locavorism emerges as a reaction to the corporatization of agriculture, for instance. But we don’t often make the connection that it’s a way of viewing the world – in which markets are everywhere, and everyone is acting as a market actor, in every sphere of their lives, even personal life – that undermines many of the things we love most – loyalty, community, family, etc.

But what I’m getting at is one step beyond that: an ambivalence about that undermining, a gut feeling that in many contexts, it can actually be a good thing, because it liberates you from orthodoxy, from doing things a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done them. And in particular, that depersonalizing conflict by putting it in market-actor terms – rather than nationalistic or tribalistic terms – may actually be a step toward resolution.

I’ll need to unpack these ideas further, but this is a start at laying out some thoughts that are ultimately closely connected to my two questions: what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society, and what would it mean to democratize philanthropy?

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One Response to “Freedom isn’t free (part 2)”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » The comfort of strangers (freedom isn’t free, part 3) Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (for now). « Freedom isn’t free (part 2) […]

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