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Early on in one of my harder math courses at the university, the professor stood up in front of the room, writing on a chalkboard. He proved that all possible problems of the class we were studying had a solution. He was quick to point out though, that no one was guaranteeing that you could find it. I spent the rest of that semester increasingly frantic as I couldn’t find those solutions.
All too often, when presented with a problem, conservatives will wave our hands and say “the market will provide a solution.” The certainty of our inevitable triumph absolves us of any need to bother with anything in the meantime. And make no mistake; I believe in the inevitable triumph of market forces as much as anyone. But we should spend a little time thinking about what all that implies.
The market is slow. Communism has been a failure wherever it’s been tried, but somehow we’ve had three generations of murderous scumbags ruling in North Korea. That regime can’t last forever but it has lasted for several decades. From the moment the Soviet Union was born out of revolution it was doomed. That didn’t prevent the Holodomor, or save uncounted multitudes from the gulag. Quite a lot of awful things can happen while we wait for the market to correct itself.
The market is unpredictable. The New York Times (a former newspaper) is still making money. Isn’t it obsolete? Shouldn’t a print medium have gone out of business by now? Maybe; word of them having layoffs always brings a smile to my face. Maybe the market is still correcting and we’re just waiting until they lay everyone off. Maybe there’s still enough value in what they create to pay to keep the doors open. It’s useless to wait for the market to solve that problem if the market is balanced already.
The market is chaotic. There’s still good money to be made in a dying industry if you play your cards right. And you can still end up bankrupt in an up-and-coming one even if you did everything right. The only way that the market rewards or punishes people is through money. There’s a lot of noise in that signal. One shouldn’t attribute too much virtue to someone who succeeds, or too little to someone who doesn’t.
The market is amoral. Not immoral, just completely indifferent. Someone was telling me about the difficulties in returning their rented cable box. The company makes money if they can charge you for it, and they’re already losing you as a customer. It’s in their economic best interest to abuse that process. Makes life worse for you the consumer, but there’s very little market incentive to change.
Some problems are resistant to market forces. Smoking weed is pretty much a dead end in terms of making money. People still do it though. Definitionaly market forces can’t demand every single person do one thing; the people have to be responding to their own incentives and making their own choices. People are chaotic; they won’t all choose the same things even given exactly the same circumstances.
Statistical effects don’t balance out in individual cases. If I lose my job maybe I don’t get another. Not because I’m not qualified or because I didn’t plan sufficiently. Statistically speaking, some people get the shaft. In a similar sense, you’ll find occasional people on this site who benefited from Obamacare. The thing is a train wreck and ruining the economy and all that, but they rolled the natural. Maybe I would have gotten another job, maybe Obamacare’s implosion would leave them worse than before. Maybe we die before that happens; there’s no karmic balance sheet that has to add up.
What does all that add up to? Before you tell me the market will solve a problem, stop and consider it. Will it solve the problem quickly, or slowly? What immediate problems is it generating while we’re waiting, and how serious are they? Is the market pointing towards the solution you want it to? If it’s not, what incentives do you have to adjust so it is?
And for heaven’s sake, show a little empathy when someone gets kicked in the teeth.
In “I imagine you already know this” news, the title is taken from the poem The Gods of the Copybook Headings by Rudyard Kipling.