Rope Merchants

Koch Fellow Rachel Balsham has a smart post over at Obernews on the adaptation of the market to the prevalent distaste for the market. After a number of interesting examples, she predicts that

given the prevalence of vague anti-market preferences among bobos, the rise of bobo culture will bring about more creative ways to be capitalist without the aftertaste of oppression. And eventually, maybe private enterprise won’t taste so bad to the cultural elite.

I think this raises all sorts of interesting questions, few of which I will raise here.

I will say that Balsham’s Conjecture strikes me as containing a deep tension between the expression of preference in the market and in the voting booth. If enough people have anti-market preferences, then the market will, soon enough, begin providing goods and services packaged in a manner that appeals to those preferences. And if enough people have anti-market preferences, they will vote for anti-market policy. They are in effect buying the same thing in both cases: self-narrative coherence.

Rachel seems to think that once the market starts giving anti-market folks products that flatter their ideological self-conceptions, the edges will begin to rub off the classic anti-market tropes, and anti-market commitments will soften. But this might be backwards. The market may gratify anti-market preferences by selling products that affirm and entrench classic anti-market tropes, thus cementing or even sharpening anti-market preferences. These preferences, expressed electorally, are bad for the market.

As the Marxists were fond of saying, “The capitalist will sell you the rope with which to hang him.” Or something like that. What we have, then, if we turn Balsham’s Conjecture on its head, is a sort of ideological tragedy of the commons, where entrepreneurs race to profit from products that undermine the cultural conditions of entrepreneurship.

Oh, the contradictions of capitalism!

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center