When I was a little girl, my family lived in Washington DC. Most of the people we knew were in some way involved in the government. So the idea of government was never some giant amorphous “other” to me. It was a meta- being comprised of people very like those in my immediate circle. Smart, ethical, service oriented people. People who analyzed information, wrote reports, did administrative work. Some were part of the military or worked on large public scientific or engineering projects. Often these folks lived a bit too much in their heads. We also knew a good number of political activists. Those people were deeply concerned with what was right and fair, seeking to reconcile the values of freedom and justice for all with the day to day reality of living in a world where status and exploitation formed the underpinnings of social and economic life. The activist types tended towards drama, naturally…but generally they were sincere and driven by honorable intentions. Even as a young child, I was very clear that when we spoke of government, it did not mean a unified entity but more a complex process of people trying to solve problems. And it was messy, contentious and riddled with human failings.
As an adolescent, I moved to Chicago. City of Big Shoulders. The Midwest. Chicago has become a truly cosmopolitan city over my lifetime. When we moved there it still had the character of a very large and complex trading post. For coastal urbanites, Chicago was the only real destination between LA and New York and it was known as The Second City. Lake Michigan, despite it’s great size, is merely a lake…not an ocean with connections to Europe or Asia. It often seemed the whole city had an inferiority complex. In Chicago, wealthy merchants and professional people emulating the lifestyle of 19th century robber barons dominated the social world of the north shore. Commerce was king. In DC personal status hinged upon your ability to influence via personal connections…communications skills and who you knew. In Chicago it was all about how much money you had. Period. And we did not have much of that. But the bottom line orientation of the city’s geist was very valuable to me—especially in forming my understanding of how things really work in the world. How stuff actually gets done and why. As a young adult, I got to see firsthand the Board of Trade and the Mercantile Exchange in action and I was hooked for life on the energy and complexity of the patterns of transaction for goods and services and currency.
In college I studied Political Science. And between stints at school I worked for a financial adviser and carried a series 7 stockbrokers license.
So the dichotomy of government vs. the market is set deep in my psyche. That seems to be true for many people. It is certainly the foundation of a lot of politics. As if somehow government and the market are opposite poles, and questions about what we ought to do or how we ought to do it are simply debates over which entity would best serve our purpose. Big Government vs Free Market is a standard narrative for the right, while Big Corporations vs. The People is a standard narrative for the left. When it comes to debating policy, the idea of “the people” viewed by the left often boils down to access to social safety nets provided by government programs which have been steadily unraveled over the past 30 years—a process underway pretty much since they were created. Because where the left sees socially responsible safety nets, the right sees high taxes and bloated bureaucracy and diminishment of personal responsibility and freedom. Mostly taxes, with the other stuff as rhetorical ballast in my opinion, but that is the storyline anyway. Government vs. the Market is Godzilla vs. Megalon, with our ideas about the good life a trembling Tokyo in the background.
But these are not really the only options for creating and sustaining the good life.
Both ideas are heavily politicized, and as features of human social organization, both are relatively recent to our history. The marketplace is very old, but the market….that is pretty new. The Marketplace is merely a central location for exchanging goods and services and ideas. A busy hive of human activity, buzzing with personal relationships and multiple opportunities for connection, consumption and creativity. The Market, on the other hand, is for most people a giant mysterious force which governs the weather of our economic well being. A harsh and jealous god, who will smite us with the thunderbolts of unemployment or high interest rates or insecure retirement if we fail to worship properly. And the rules of how to worship keep changing faster than anyone can keep up.
But at the core the real difference between the two is scale. The Marketplace is a local entity—there were always many marketplaces. My sister is a farmer in France. They take their vegetables and cheeses to three different local markets throughout the week. But The Market is a global meta-market, with national/regional interaction points, where goods and services and ideas are traded only after they have been transformed into fungible units of stock or bond or future or option or currency. In The Marketplace, relationships are the main medium of exchange. “Know your Farmer” is an important value for many people who care about what they eat and shop for food at the local farmer’s market. But in The Market, farmers are anonymous. As are inventors, teachers, researchers, managers, line workers, marketers, computer programmers and anyone else involved in the production and distribution of products or services. Indeed in The Market the most important transactions are not of products at all but of ratios and volumes of ones and zeros rushing about the globe electronically at the speed of light.
Of course when we talk about The Market we are often thinking in a general sense about commercial transactions and their relative ability to provide us with what we want and need. But we tend to imagine The Marketplace when we talk about The Market as a means to a public good. And it does not really function as we imagine. The Market is governed by short term decisions with long term consequences. Just about the opposite of what we need for the public good, which would be decisions based on how things are likely to evolve. Like the Native American standard of evaluating plans based on how they will affect the tribe seven generations into the future. Because when it comes down to it, anonymous transaction partners make poor bedfellows compared to those with whom we are engaged in long term relationships. And even if our idea of The Market is a composite of all the markets out there, its function is far more like The Market than The Marketplace.
Similar confusion plagues our understanding of Government. For most of human history, we lived in tribes of about 50 people. Decisions were made largely by elders, or by consensus of the adults in the group. Interaction between groups was governed by ritual. Since the advent of agriculture and its accompanying population explosion, human society has evolved many forms of governance with varying degrees of agency for the individual and varying degrees of overall prosperity and well being for the group. We still have not quite figured out the optimal balance of either agency or well being for groups much larger than a small village. But in a practical sense, most of us still operate within relatively small networks of people—even if we live in a crowded urban center. We still rely on relationships to sustain us, and to get things done. But we struggle with our role in government. For those of us in participatory democratic republics it is very difficult to acquire the wisdom necessary to participate effectively as active citizens. It is just too big and complex and anonymous. Perhaps this is because the “citizen” our system was designed around was a leisured gentleman with a wife and servants and slaves and investments to handle his day to day needs so that he might focus upon the efforts of participatory citizenship. He was the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. As we have expanded citizenship rights down to reach the people who have traditionally held supporting roles, we have yet to re-frame the idea of what it means to be a citizen so that we may effectively participate.
So we participate by holding opinions. Blogging. Yelling at the TV. Wearing t shirts. Ranting within the echo chamber of our own little tribes. And we debate the virtue of actual practical ideas across a spectrum that is false. Because the market cannot provide public goods. And government cannot guarantee either fairness or efficiency. It might make sense to look a bit closer to home for some of these things. To our relationships. Our communities. Local initiatives. Co-operative arrangements. Getting together with friends and family and neighbors to address immediate concerns. Yes, the meta-beings have a huge impact what with the legal and economic sub structure of our lives, and those things are important. But just because government cannot provide some things effectively, it does not mean that the market would do a better job. And just because the market does not provide some important things at all, it does not mean that government necessarily should. Perhaps a modern model for agency and civic participation will involve a personal commitment to making a difference in ones own, local community life. The idea is at least worth a try….
Next time we will chat a bit about the good life.
- PSA #1: Public Goods (maydayresistance.org)
- Civil Society
- corporate governance
- Democratic Reform
- Frac Act
- Human Rights
- Joel Hirschhorn
- Josh Fox
- May Day Celebration
- Minimum Wage
- occupy wall street
- Oil Companies
- price fixing
- protest action
- shock doctrine
- Social Change
- stupid conservatives
- Women's Rights
ChatYou must login if you want to participate in chat.Powered by Quick Chat