Anderson on markets Notes for September 23

Main points

In some ways, Anderson’s discussion of markets is an outgrowth of Williams’s discussion of equality. Both authors assert that we can move from premises about the nature of goods to conclusions about how we ought to behave and how society should be organized. Markets do not necessarily meet these standards and it is possible to criticize them when they fail to do so.

That has to be right. Why would the market be a perfect mechanism for realizing the full range of our values? I also find Anderson’s general claim that there are social effects from extending the market in various ways overwhelmingly plausible.

We decided that Anderson’s characterization of the norms governing market behavior accurately describe the assumptions about human behavior found in economic theory. We then discussed her case for limiting markets in a variety of goods.

Freedom and markets

Officially, Anderson takes aim at what appears to be the strongest case for markets: freedom. She argues that the “need to limit markets is based on a pluralistic theory of the social conditions for freedom and autonomy” (p. 141).

Unfortunately, when we examined specific cases such as prostitution we found it hard to say whether this is so or not.

One set of questions had to do with the arguments themselves. Several of us were not convinced that societies where prostitution is tolerated suffer the malign attitudes about sexuality that she claims they would. At least, it struck us as an issue that ought to be settled through empirical study rather than armchair speculation.

Even if we put these doubts aside, it seemed to many of us that, at most, tolerance of prostitution makes some people more free and others less so. Consequently, it’s difficult to come to a conclusion about whether considerations of freedom alone tell us whether it should be prohibited, tolerated with regulation, or simply tolerated without any interference at all. At least, that was Kevin’s take on our discussion. I agree with him.

It seems to me that she has a point about private property: it does reduce liberty. When one thing becomes someone’s property, everyone else loses their rights to use it. (Though Seth is right to say that the move from public ownership to private ownership is more complicated. When roads are under public ownership, everyone is forced to pay for their maintenance. Privatization would remove this limit to liberty.) But that’s a lesson we should have learned from Locke.

For the other cases, I wasn’t convinced that the distinction between public and private ownership carries the day. If the public parks are dirty and dangerous while the private shopping mall is clean and safe, I know where I would go to people watch. Local, voicey, control of schools is good. But it typically comes with inequitable funding.

Why freedom?

Finally, I would like to ask a question that occurred to me on the way home. Why hinge everything on freedom and autonomy? Doesn’t the whole story presume a hierarchy of goods with the market goods being at the lowest level? If so, what’s wrong with sticking by that theory and insisting that markets promote less valuable goods at the expense of more valuable ones?

I suspect the answer is that these judgments about what is higher and lower value are extremely controversial. They are hard to establish one way or the other, even in the seminar room. There are good reasons why we might not want the state taking sides too often on behalf of the “higher” goods. As Professor Brown said, it’s easy to cross the line between preventing degradation and mere snobbery.

David Smith sculptures

Maybe someone scraped them down for money. But all I could find was this reference to Clement Greenberg’s doing so.

“After Smith’s death, one of his estate’s executors, Clement Greenberg, perpetrated an amazing violation of his vision. Smith believed that painted sculpture was an ideal artistic fusion, a consummation of the visual arts’ potential. But Greenberg, Smith’s principal executor and the renowned art critic and theoretician of abstract expressionism, thought differently. Convinced that each art form achieved purity only when stripped down to its essence, Greenberg considered painted sculpture a compromise of sculpture’s integrity. So, he removed the paint from a number of Smith’s outdoor pieces.”

I don’t mean to endorse what Greenberg did. I just want to point out two things.

  1. I looked it up.
  2. Shifting from economic to aesthetic value doesn’t settle the question of the proper treatment of an art work. Greenberg was as qualified as anyone alive to make the aethetic call, even if he did get it wrong.
This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being, PPE 160, Fall 2008. It was posted September 23, 2008.
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