Saturday, April 11, 2009

Markets or Voters?

In part one of The Trap, Adam Curtis argued that the libertarian shift against bureaucratic authority led to society placing a premium on the elimination of human decision making.

The push to remove human judgement and decision making from important societal institutions -- including psychiatry -- have instead led to a society in which many decisions better left to human judgement have been turned entirely over to bureaucratic stringentness and, often, computers.

In part two, entitled "The Lonely Robot", Curtis addresses the manner in which this has been applied to democratic politics on a broader scale.

In Britain, it was John Major who embraced game theory in order to further prod along what eventually became known as the "bureaucracy bashing revolution". This revolution was intended to free government agencies to pursue their performance targets however they saw fit. Instead, what was eventually thrust upon them was a market-driven model that framed decision making within the so-called invisible hand of the market.

Yet the invisible hand of the market is known to be far from invisible. The market is very visible in the operations of banks, stock traders, and regulatory agencies. All of these organizations are guided by human agency, and are often riddled with bureaucratic structures.

When Bill Clinton arrived in office with a laundry list of promises to fulfil, he was quickly dissuaded by individuals such as Robert Rubin to instead follow the free market consensus that had emerged during the Ronald Reagan Presidency, and been sustained during the administration of George HW Bush.

Clinton had promised to use the power of the President's office to pull the country out of an economic resession.

The market, it was argued, was better able to predict and fulfill the needs and desires of citizens. The free market was regarded by these individuals as superior to democracy.

Yet these particular individuals overlooked -- or, likely, simply omitted -- the fact that the market does not function on a one person, one vote basis. Instead, the market treats citizens unequally based on the resources they have at their disposal -- in other words, what they can buy.

An individual who has no resources has no vote in the market. Likewise, those who don't want to partake in what the market has placed on offer have been given no choice.

Likewise, those who are very weathy, under the Rubin model of democracy, were granted extremely disproportionate influence. Likewise, those who want -- or are even indifferent to -- the choices they are offered enjoy an advantageous position. It doesn't help that any public preference for certain government policies is actually exaggerated by the influence of the wealthiest citizens.

It was, ironically, Irving Kristol -- considered to be one of the god fathers of neoconservatism -- who insisted that, if the market wants to be the primary force in any society, it must accept responsibility for eliminating poverty.

Yet in the absence of democracy -- wherein it is purported and, optimally, demanded that all citizens be treated as equal -- there is no real impetus for the market to tackle poverty. Certainly, the incentive is sorely lacking.

Freedom, as Curtis notes, was cast narrowly in the form of positive freedoms. Citizens had the freedom to consume whatever they wanted. The libertarian focus on negative freedoms -- in this case, freedom from the market -- seemed to have been forgotten.

Game theory meshed with theories such as Richard Dawkins' "selfish gene" to undermine notions of human agency. Within this conceptual frame, human beings were reduced to calculating creatures, constantly seeking personal advantage at the behest of one's genes.

Society, in the musings of such individuals, was reduced to the level of sophistification of the most primitive tribal societies -- societies wherein little coherent social order seems to exist.

What was absent from this model was the notion of human choice -- that humans didn't choose to support their friends and families, and that they only did so in return for help surviving. What people would otherwise regard as a complex societal order built on the notion of a collection of social contracts was reduced to base survivalism.

This cynicism is a stark contrast to the optimism on which democracies are ideally based. Democracy teaches us that diverse groups of people, with diverse interests, can forge a mutual societal order based on consensus, even if agreement is never universal.

It's cynicism that leads to a government-by-numbers model that casts aspersions upon human judgement and demand that it be removed from public administration as much as possible.

This kind of mentality, naturally, fell right into the hands of bureaucrats. The "bureaucrat bashing revolution" had instead made bureaucrats more powerful than they ever were.

The medicalization of human emotional states and the introduction of anti-depressent drugs cast a sinister shadow across the issue. Important questions linger about the extent to which modern psychiatry treats ordinary emotional distress as a mental illness best addressed with medication rather than the result of ordinary problems.

Taking the judgement of psychiatrists out of the decision-making process has only made this more distinct. If symptoms were examined to determine their root cause, as opposed to examined based on the mere existence of the symptom, it's extremely likely that many people diagnosed as clinically depressed may be treated otherwise.

Once again, the efforts to detect misdiagnoses within psychiatry instead intensified the problem, and has led to as many misdiagnoses as ever.

By setting performance targets, Tony Blair's Labour Government had subordinated government to this emerging tyranny of numbers. In many cases, indices were designed to measure things that, in many cases, defy numerical measurement.

Bureaucrats aren't given the option of refusing a target. And in cases where targets may have been unattainable by ordinary means, perverse methods of artificually meeting them were used.

Societies that tolerate artificial solutions to their problems are certainly not headed in a positive or progressive direction. Because it relies on numbers, a market number can be fooled with numbers, especially when the ordinary citizens' methods of demanding that societal problems be substantively addressed are being undermined.

The market also gives the wealthiest the opportunity to go outside of the public system to meet their needs. Wealthy people who find it difficult to receive medical aid through public systems artificially meeting their performance targets can receive treatement in private clinics. Wealthy people who are being victimized by crime because their police departments are artificially lowering crime rates can build gated communities and hire their own security.

Instead of brining people together in a manner superior to that democracy can accomplish, these models instead drive people further apart, usually at society's own expense.

When people are driven apart, they are never driven apart at random. They're driven together as they're driven apart -- herded into groups based on ethnicity, religion, language and any number of other tratis, but moreover than any of them, wealth.

The marketization of democracy not only empowers the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, it also separates them from everyone else. They cease to live in the same social reality as their fellow citizens, and instead live in a social reality all their own.

The trap that has emerged out of the removal of human judgement from public management can be overcome, but it requires a more hopeful, more democratic, view of society and the way it should operate.


  1. Brilliant analysis, Patrick.

    One thing I'd like to point out is just how much what you're saying here reminds me of what John Ralston Saul wrote about in books like The Collapse of Globalism and Reflections of a Siamese Twin, wherein he criticizes the move towards highly specialized technocrats in many international trading regimes, with the underlying implication being that ordinary citizens are otherwise too stupid to know how these things work. Case in point would be the NAFTA trade tribunals, where unelected, unaccountable, largely faceless trade bureaucrats can dictate to elected governments what they can and can't do. Just look at for some of the more outrageous lawsuits, like the B.C. government being sued for trying to block bulk freshwater exports (something you've been concerned about on this blog)or Ethyl Corporation and Dow Chemical suing the federal and Ontario governments for trying to block the importation of toxic PCBs and fertilizers.

    I know you don't think much of him, but I think you and he might actually have more in common than you realize, at least in this vein. Many of the criticisms people like Saul himself, Lloyd Axworthy, and Mel Hurtig that I've read reflect your own concerns about the "marketization" of democracy, in particular that we as citizens don't have a larger social contract, and are just banded together for mutual convenience.

    Of course, ostensibly opposed groups who turn out to have far more in common than they otherwise realize is nothing new in Canada-witness Newfoundland & Labrador sharing similar views to Alberta on the need for an elected Senate, business leaders like Warren Buffett, Peter Lougheed and Dominic D'Alessandro being concerned about the rapidly increasing levels of foreign corporate ownership in their countries, which people like Hurtig and David Orchard have been going on about for years, or the left-leaning Parkland Institute and the right-leaning Canada West Foundation both having reservations about the Alberta government's long-term plans for our oil reserves and the money we're getting from them, as but three examples I can think of off the top of my head.

    As is so often the case, ostensibly opposing parties have more in common than they realize, and unfortunately it's usually only the loudest, most toxic people or parts of an argument that get attention-witness Eastern Canadians focussing on the negative comments made by Reform/Alliance backbenchers instead of the very real concerns people like Preston Manning had about the federal government's operations, or Mel Hurtig and David Orchard's own venom and attitude repelling people who might otherwise agree with them, like yourself.

  2. Patrick,

    Since first reading this post on Saturday it has stuck with me. Amid the obligatory faux-Easter egg hunts, two familial food orgies, one birthday party and the scene of our sugar-fueled crazed children running amok for hours on end I kept reflecting on this post. As Jared says - brilliant!

    re: "When people are driven apart, they are never driven apart at random. They're driven together as they're driven apart -- herded into groups based on ethnicity, religion, language and any number of other tratis, but moreover than any of them, wealth."

    Not sure if you meant it this way or not, but to my mind your point clearly demonstrates that economic determinism (and class analysis) remain the key analytical tools for discerning both the nature of the real divide and (possibly?) offer a means to discern a new practical and viable praxis for our polity.

    As you point out, those who denude democracy of its core human values via the tool of a marketization that "empowers" and separates the elites from everyone else only abet a divide that polarizes. And, left unchecked, class antagonism and polarization can only lead to one thing ....

    Ah, "What is to be done?"

    , it also separates them from everyone else.


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