Friday, April 8, 2011

A Telling Comment

Speaking at the National Archives in downtown Washington, D.C., esteemed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns commented today on the recent popular criticism of public funded broadcasting. Patrick Gavin reporting for Politico carries parts of the talk which I think would perk the ears of any libertarian, not so much because of any particular policy suggestions from the director but rather because of his choice of words. Let's take a quick look:
People can make arguments about the marketplace, but if your house is on fire at 3 a.m., you don't call the marketplace. When your road needs plowing, you don't call the marketplace. The marketplace doesn't have boots on the ground in Afghanistan. [1]
Any libertarian or advocate of a free market, I think, would be immediately taken aback by how Burns talks about a "marketplace" and what his choice of words seems to indicate. Unusually, he describes it as if it is a monolithic institution, that is, he conceives of it in essentially statist terms. He seems to be thinking, "I can call the government for help because it is a finite entity, but in contrast I cannot call 'the marketplace' because it is not." This suggests a fundamental view of his: that the basic unit of utility or agency in society is the individual but as some larger institution, most particularly the government. This may seem an extraordinary extrapolation but a lack of understanding of what a market is, the free association of people, leaves only a collectivist mindset. His reasoning forgets that all institutions are made of people. Regarding economics, they are people with particular skills: if they didn't work where they did they would work somewhere else with those same skills. Likewise, if there is a demand, someone with the skills to meet it will do so. And if there is no one with the skill, there is nothing the government can do about it. Only individuals can make the choice to invest in a particular skill.

Perhaps, you might say, the government organizes people, meaning it collects the money and pays the plow drivers because citizens, if left to their own choice, would not pay for them. Thus the government in this line of thinking "creates the demand." Well if there was no demand the people didn't really want it now did they? And if there is demand, well then you don't need the government now do you? You're not suggesting people be forced to pay for things they don't want, are you? Of course not.

So what is Burns really suggesting here? Does he think that the government, that central planning, is really the only way people can organize? Is he saying if the government didn't organize fire brigades and plows that we would all sit and freeze or flambé to death? That you can't learn a skill and offer it to people in exchange for something?

Burns' choice of words strongly suggests that to him a "marketplace" is not a market place of people offering their skills to others who need it and who will in turn trade what they have or do in return, but
a vague notion describing how people produce only inessential items. In fact he seems to mock "the marketplace" for not being a specific institution he can call on for help, as if the world isn't filled with people offering their skills to each other without government "guidance." A "free market" in this view is just a sort of foggy, fundamentalist, fantasy.

Referring to both the government and marketplace as institutions that produce things themselves instead of contrasting methods of organization of people, the actual agents and producers of society,  suggests a mindset not centered on the individual. No doubt Mr. Burns thinks that "the marketplace" can accomplish certain things, but the way he talks about it, as a failed or faux institution, reflects a fundamentally state-oriented view. At the very least his choice of words reflects someone who has not seriously thought about the economic implications of liberty.



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