Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Conflation Contemplation

Hades Lord of Riches offers Persephone an improved standard of living, and wonders what she's grousing about.   Detail from Attic red-figure amphora, Italy, c. 470 BCE.  Via the Louvre, and Jastrow at Wikimedia Commons - public domain. In a recent post I began to wrestle with the libertarian 'conflation debate' - the question of whether current capitalist institutions should be considered as primarily statist or free-market agencies. This is, in principle, an empirical question. If conflationists are right, the popular image of a free market is essentially correct, and a more corporate-dominated society would result if we moved towards one. If the less intuitive anti-conflationist position is right, a free market might actually look a lot more like the smaller-scale, decentralized societies of certain Green and anarcho-socialist visions.

A third possibility is that the answer is radically dependent on the social and physical technology underlying it. Large economies of scale and specialization, and high costs of information, transaction, and security, should all favour large corporate bodies of the familiar type - bubbles of command economy in a sea of free competition. Diseconomies of scale, economies of flexibility, and low activity costs should tend to favour a dynamic foam of small firms and independent traders.

These observations will be equally true, as far as they go, whether these economies and costs are imposed by government or occur in spite of it. What is less clear, is what the scope of variation is, and how far invention or other deliberate intervention might shift it. The answer might be anything along the scale from 'revolution' to 'minor tweak'.

Since my lab is not equipped to handle the necessary experiments, I now have to examine whether there are any systematic reasons that Big Government should be correlated positively or negatively with Big Money. My first task, though, is to identify my own biases. There are answers I want to find, and answers I don't. I must therefore lean hard on any argument that seems to confirm the former, and actively seek out the latter wherever I miss them. Assistance in catching my inevitable errors will always be greatly appreciated.

So what do I want to be true?

My gut is mostly with the anti-conflationists on this one. I detest bureaucracy and managerialism from any source whatsoever, and have a poor opinion of its efficiency; I am a cosy individualist rather than a rugged one; legalism bores and annoys me; I dislike to formalize or monetize the regular give-and-take within my social world any more than necessary. I have pretty hardcore feelings about private property rights, and I don’t trust large concentrations of power to respect them. If I could write my own SFnal world and step into it, I had rather live in the shonkiest Bohemian spacestead on Eris of the Ten Thousand, than the shiniest glaucium cubicle in all Plutopia.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I am right, or that the conflationists are wrong. There may be excellent reasons why Plutopia is the best we can hope for, here or elsewhere.

My money - for the moment - says it isn’t, not by a Terran country mile! We shall examine, in subsequent postings, how well this assumption holds up under pressure.

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