“When you buy something at the store are you keeping my or somebody in China’s interests in mind?” Without intending it or realizing it my good friend hit upon what is perhaps the central problem facing contemporary socialism. All the more fitting, then, that this question was asked of me by a self-described Randian libertarian. I presume my friend expected me to come up with an answer that denies any thought on my part for others when it comes to my purchases or my participation in the “free market”. I fear I did not supply the answer he wanted or expected to hear. But what was my answer? Was my answer up to the standard set by the fantastic question? My friend believes, or rather knows to be true but must as a concession to tact and modesty if not intellectual rigor, that the market is made up of billions of individuals acting in their own individual i.e. selfish interests. I do not agree with this view of the matter. In fact I find this conception of the market perverse, if not utterly abominable. But what do I argue in contrast to this view? Are my conceptions any less based on faith in a universal ideal of human agency?
The ideal my friend holds to, the faith he adheres to, is that of laissez faire and the beneficial self-interest of individuals in a market. The faith of laissez faire is essentially un-provable and un-falsifiable, as it would require the evacuation of all human bureaucratic and societal pressures and influences in order to be observed in all its “natural” truth. Popper would find enough there to dismiss the doctrine out of hand, but then how would I measure my own ideas against it? As to beneficial, even enlightened, self-interest in the market, one would have to define what it means to be an individual in a market of billions, what it means to act as an individual, and how would one act otherwise? There cannot be an individual in the market if there is no antithesis inherent within the system. But this letter is not meant to tear apart capitalist pretensions (I have done that elsewhere), but to enlighten myself as to my own pretensions and beliefs about the market, and the question posed by my friend.
When I buy something, do I keep the interests of others in mind? The answer to that question is of course a simple yes and no. No, of course I am not totally and thoroughly aware of ever ramification of my purchase, that would require the sort of omniscience claimed by certain Near Eastern deities and Friedrich Hayek, but I am aware that there is indeed a ramification. I fully admit I am not aware enough about my purchasing power and my “choices”. But I am not so arrogant as to claim that my ignorance is proof positive of the absence of my power and choice or lack thereof. Is it in my best interest (and therefor by the logic of laissaz faire and Smithian capitalist theory in everyone’s best interest) to buy a cheaply priced consumer good? Well, that depends. In the immediate sense it may seem nice to “save” money, but these savings are in the end an illusion. Consumer goods are priced at levels that are conducive to large corporations that sell consumer goods to amass capital, award management bonuses, and further reduce prices on the backs of their employees and the workers who make the goods in question. It is a vicious cycle.
The laissaiz faire theorist will tell you that the market dictates prices, and the market is driven by the self-serving choices of individuals. Maybe this would be the case in society where your economic vote is as equal man to man as your democratic vote. But this is of course a utopia, and the reality is a world of corporate interests that create and sustain themselves on the principle of thwarting the desires and market opinions of so called “self-interested” individuals.
Many libertarians and free market theorists postulate that the market is akin to an enormous democracy, the purest form in fact: everyone can participate and by participating steer the market and dictate economic fortunes for all mankind. There is one glaring problem with this postulation however: a democracy is based upon the concept of one person one vote. In this view of the market as great democracy we forget that in the market a man or woman is only as powerful as their vote, and that vote is a dollar, and a man or a woman can have anywhere from 1 to 1,000,000,000 or more dollars, and hence the same discrepancy in voting power. And this voting process is not influenced by merit or inherent value within a social contract, but based on who can exploit capital, labor and manipulate political circumstances with the most guile and skill. This is the antithesis of a democracy. Mass participation in a system does not give that system the legitimacy of a democracy nor does it give that system the imprimatur to make change and choices on the behalf of the mass of people.
I must say, I have no quarrel with evil if it forthrightly states its’ purpose. The free market as a democracy, and the illusion of choice hoisted upon us by corporations of self-interested and powerful individuals acting in concert are both damnable lies, made all the more so for their proponents failure to come out and admit this self-evident truth. So, what do I think of when I buy something at the store? Well, I now think about how what I am buying is not just a shirt, or a new gadget, or a piece of fruit but the product of someone’s labor that I am now consuming. I owe it to those people who have supplied me with these goods, and I do not mean the corporations that exploit that labor, I owe it to them to think before I purchase something: to think about the price and what it should be versus what it is, and to think about whether or not this product is worth the abuse of labor it took to produce it. As I said before, I am not a perfect consumer, or a perfect socialist. What I am, however, is someone who will no longer knowingly consume the un-reimbursed and exploited produce of labor. I go without things I once wanted, and I look to less exploitative sources for what I need. I am not perfect, and I will not always make the right choices, but it is better to be imperfect and err then to be ignorant and exploit out fellow human beings.