Friday, December 10, 2010

Menus, not Markets

In his conception of freedom as "freedom to choose," which Jamie Galbraith correctly relabels as "freedom to shop", Milton Friedman conflated two kinds of things: price choice and variety choice.

To be able to choose among varieties is one of the things humans generally enjoy.   Menus are the tool that provide that kind of choice.

To be able to find the best price, which is always contingent (such as, the best price while retaining some level of quality, service, social responsibility, etc) is usually a big pain, known in economics as part of "transaction costs."  Markets are the tool that provide that choice.  Unlike menus, which are one-dimensional, markets are two dimensional, at least in principle.  Allegedly you can choose among identical products at different prices, based on the efficiency of the producers.  But the more closely you look, the more you see that what is obtained at different prices cannot be identical.

What you generally get at the lowest price is not the best "value", but the least social responsibility.  To get you the best price, positive externalities are minimized and negative ones maximized.  Employees are paid less or denied rights such as healthcare; damage to the environment is permitted, or not cleaned up, etc.

Now you might ask, why should I worry about these things?  Why should I not choose the best price for me?  The reason is that the earth is fundamentally a closed system.  What goes around comes around.

Markets are fundamentally atomizing and destructive; they encourage all sorts of anti-social behaviors.

Markets teach that the highest virtue is self-interest.  But that is not true in the closed system.  The highest virtue is solidarity with all others.

For each variety, there is really only one price, the socially responsible price.  All other prices are, in real world, higher.

The greatest freedom is the freedom not to have to choose.

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