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No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart

February 6, 2013

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At Brad DeLong’s blog I came across this book by Tom Slee, which is from 2006.  The subject is how individual choice – the unquestioned mantra of libertarians and most conservatives – in the aggregate leads to outcomes that are collectively disadvantageous, like the demise of downtowns and their replacement by the Wal-Mart monoculture.

You can read chapter 1 for free here.  An excerpt:

What became known as the Chicago School had been busy attacking the then-dominant Keynesian ideas that government spending could be used to carry economies through recessions and even pull them out of depressions … One weapon that the school used was the idea of "rational choice." It took the idea of self-interested exchange–a theory introduced in the 18th century by Scots economist Adam Smith–to, and many would say beyond, its logical extreme. The members of the Chicago school insisted that all decisions, including even non-economic ones, could be understood as the product of self-interested rational individual choices, and they therefore announced that the market was the pathway to prosperity and growth.

During the "Me Decade" of the 1980s these ideas found their way out of academic journals and into the public arena. The centrality of the individual and the rejection of community found its voice in Thatcher’s famous declaration, "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

Hmm.  The Iron Lady is still with us, though it seems likely not for much longer; but one has to wonder, if there was no such thing as “society”, what was she Prime Minister of?

Back to the book, I’d like to get the whole thing but it doesn’t seem to be available as an e-book; when next back in the US I’ll have to look for a used copy.  Meanwhile Slee’s blog has some interesting stuff, like this post on Peer-to-Peer Hucksterism, where he takes to task services like Uber (the ride-sharing virtual taxi app) and AirBnB (the service that let’s people rent rooms out of their homes).  Slee’s contention, which I agree with, is that far from liberating resources and choice for the benefit of consumers, these services extract large fees but take no responsibility for the services being negotiated.  There are reasons we have regulations on taxis and hotels.  They are mainly so I as a consumer can engage a car or a room with expectation of a certain quality of service – and, to give me a standard channel for recourse when I don’t receive that level of service.

Anyway, individual choice vs. collective goods.  Neat topic.  Leaping from economics to literature, I wonder why there aren’t any/many anti-libertarian dystopian novels.  there’s plenty of pro-libertarian novels, from 1984 to Atlas Shrugged and even The Hunger Games.  Maybe I’ll save this thought for another post.

Categories: Economics
  1. alex salazar
    February 6, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    I think there is no anti -libertarian distopian novels because distopia as a genre is heavily founded in response to society : a backlash to growing size and power of governments and possibly even fear of oppressive establishments within government (there’s more than a little red scare aftertaste in some of the classic examples) . Repeated themes in them include loss of control and society becoming monstrous. Which are fears that are very very libertarian.

    I also note that it as a genre is also very racially white. This may be because loss of control and institutional unfairness are already par for the course in real life if you are a racial or ethnic minority therefore there’s relatively little fear of loss there. For white, libertarian audiences the loss of what they take for granted goes along with the real life undertone of racism and paranoia regarding the possibility of winning the genetic lottery not mattering anymore. Even if not consciously, its heavily internalized.

    There is a reason why nearly all zombie apocalypse stories feature a white, male hero with either conservative or libertarian leanings, and women end up relegated to bandage rollers and black people die in act one. These stories (at the moment) are primarily power fantasies in which a white hero turns the distruction of society into salvation of society, with a white male libertarian hero as an ark for the percieved ‘correct ‘ societal values.

    • February 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm

      Ok, I guess you are saying that dystopian stories have to be in reaction to a “topia” of some kind, and topias by their very nature are organized and limit freedom in some way, whereas an extreme libertarian society would be anarchic — while there would be conditions to complain about, there would be no “system” to criticize.

      • alex salazar
        February 6, 2013 at 2:22 pm

        It’s also a very individualist -friendly fiction genre. Almost every example is about the triumph (or failure) of an individual against either an oppressive society or the karmic concequences of a ‘wrong ‘ or unstable society. It plays on a lot of fears that life is me -against -the -world and that accepting help leads to betrayal and weakness. Even if these stories include a team or a commune, the story will be about thst groups collapsearound the protagonist in some way… perhaps ending with the protagonist with ‘correct ‘ values (often the values held by the author and the target audience) founding the only successful or lasting enclave of new society. Shared themes can be seen in seasteading endeavors and freeman -on -the -land soviergn citizen philosophies.

        As an aside, modern distopic fiction is more popular in very individualist America than it is in other countries where communal or cooperative lifestyles are more encouraged.

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