As a bit of an old fashioned lefty, I've never been a big fan of unfettered capitalism and the uncontrolled free market, particularly where global trade is concerned (or any point, in fact, where the 'strong' meet the 'weak').
My problem is that, for all the theoretical purity of the arguments in favour of economic freedoms, what works in a textbook rarely works in practise.
Because the sad fact is that, ultimately, we all have a worrying tendency to be be selfish and self-serving. And in the free market, this tends to mean the survival of the fittest (for which read richest, most powerful etc.) in all the worst ways, rather than a case of 'floating all boats' (to quote an oft-used free market platitude). Basically, it's a system which favours those with the ability/power/resources to 'play' the system, breaking the 'natural' rules of markets in the process and bending (sometimes ignoring) those imposed by governments. All of which means that those at the bottom of the pile suffer as a consequence.
The problem is that, for me at least, this is all gut feeling (even if I know I'm right!) - I'm not a professional economist with all the arguments to hand. But because the free market meta-narrative is now so all pervading, and intertwined with that of 'democracy' and 'individual rights' (but not, obviously, 'personal responsibility'), everyone 'knows' it is good and right. And that to argue otherwise means you're a communist or some old school 70s trade unionist (and look what happened back then).
Which is why a small point in one of John Grant's recent posts on economics and the environment leapt out at me. In it, 'green' Economist Herman Daly draws a parallel between the freedoms nation states are expected to offer businesses to aid the workings of the market, and the controls those same companies impose on their own work force.
The argument was so simple and so obvious - a Homer 'doh' moment. Because if we are so convinced of the power of the market, why don't we run our businesses along similar lines - insisting on freedom of all information and all resources (rather than just that which we view as essentially disposable/easily replicable), and letting people within the business decide for themselves what they want to 'make', 'buy' and 'sell' (it's the 'freedom' we want to impose on developing nations after all…albeit heavily influenced by our view of what they should be 'free' to do). Because if markets work, clearly they must work everywhere. Otherwise there is an exception that proves the rule - that markets don't work perfectly.
But obviously businesses aren't run in this way. Many of the most successful are, in fact, as totalitarian and centrally planned as during the worst excesses of Stalinist Russia. And even the most modern and flattest in structure will have rules a plenty for people to abide by. It's just that when it comes to how these companies operate at a macro level, all the importance placed on control (strangely!) goes out the window. And the expectation becomes one of freedom (to do what I want and damn the consequences to others) all the way. Funny that.
So next time you're confronted by this attitude, ask the person in question when they're going to start running their own business along similar lines, if the free market is such an efficient and effective model.
If nothing else, it should make for an entertaining conversation.
P.s. just in case anyone wants to fire back the hypocrisy argument, I see no contradiction with holding this view and working in advertising ;-)