Wednesday, June 22, 2016


To be honest, I really don't understand David Brin's article, Stop Using Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology: The irony of faith in blind markets. It seems to be some sort of critique of libertarianism/propertarianism, supposedly on "conservative" grounds, i.e. by citing Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek . (One obvious problem is that Adam Smith was actually not at all conservative, by both the standards of his time and ours; it is just as absurd to use Smith — who held businesses and business owners in considerable contempt — to support modern conservatism as it would be to use Marx.)

Brin's thesis seems to be that Smith endorsed competition, and that elevating property rights as absolute universal values, the "idolatry of private property as a pure, platonic essence," is anti-competitive.

Brin relies heavily on John Robb's essay, Central Planning and The Fall of the US Empire, which I criticized earlier. Robb makes a lot of assertions, but doesn't back them up. I don't know how good or bad central planning is in general, and it seems at least as plausible that central planning has historically failed in practice not because the planners were bad at processing and managing information but because they acted rationally in their own self interest and not irrationally in the public interest. If so, Brin's nostrum of competition would miss the point: the point is not to manage information efficiently, but to manage interests fairly.

More importantly, competition is far too broad a term to do any concrete work here. Brin notes that scientists are competitive, but the kind of competition that scientists engage in is very different from the kind of competition in capitalism. Indeed, there are more distinct kinds of competition, including amateur and professional sports, amateur and professional chess. Even the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic could be considered a kind of "competition." Brin fails to address the important questions about competition. What are the stakes? What do the winners gain for winning? What must the losers suffer for losing? Who sets the stakes? What are the rules? Are there any rules at all other than "what you can do to [your enemy] and what you can stop him from doing to you"?* Who makes the rules?

*Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game.

All economies, from hunter-gatherers to modern capitalist and communist economies, consist of centralization and distribution. No economy has ever been absolutely centrally planned, and no economy has ever been absolutely distributed. Rather than vague hand-waving that solves nothing, we need to actually understand how best to mix centralization and distribution, and, more importantly, on what basis do we judge the results.

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