Monday, January 09, 2006

Courageously Making Decisions for Other People

Back in the 60s, campus radicals used to sit around plotting revolution in order to liberate the working man from the soulless monotony of the assembly line. Of course by 2006, a great many working men would be extremely happy to sign on for 40 years of deadening routine so long as this rather notional alienation included retirement benefits and health care. Indeed, although the fact is not so obvious when you’re 20, people commonly prefer predictability and stagnation over adventure and personal growth even when it doesn’t pay that well. The SDS philosopher wasn’t giving voice to a mankind immured in spiritual bondage. He was simply channeling the value system of Marx—readers of a certain age and educational background will supply the inevitable proof text here—as Marx was himself channeling the humanistic values of German Idealism, albeit in a cause that a Goethe or Herder would not have necessarily endorsed.

There aren’t a huge number of radicals around any more, and if anybody is still writing essays on the Young Marx, I haven’t seen ‘em. The temptation to practice ideological ventriloquism continues, however, only it takes place at different venues. Instead of scruffy would-be Bakunins plotting in the grimy common rooms of grad school dormitories, one finds Stanford economists in three-piece suits imposing their free market ideology in the paneled conference rooms of a Hilton. As with the earlier revolutionaries, it never seems to occur to these folks that their political economies all involve assumptions about what people want, assumptions that repeatedly turn out to be simply false. Deregulation of the electric power industry, for example, was promoted on the “reasonable” assumption that people will be willing to put up with interruptions of service in return for lower average power bills; but when the lights went out, this convenient theory turned out to be politically impossible. What made and makes perfectly good sense for a business man, doesn’t fly with the public at large because people don’t want to live like business men, at least not all the time. What the economists promote as an inevitable result, the unique solution to a giant optimization problem, is simply a way of insisting that everybody adopt the value system of a technologically savvy pirate. As with so many issues in political economy, what matters are the boundary conditions, not the equations.

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