A couple of weeks ago, I walked past a couple of activists at a stand. They were getting signatures to legalise gay marriage, and once at the table I saw they were also giving away leaflets on behalf of the Socialist Alliance and Green Left about a handful of social justice and environmental issues.
One of the women asked me if I follow politics and the sorts of issues I care about. “Corporate protectionism,” I said with a smirk, knowing full well this would take her aback – which it did, because she seemed a little nervous, asking if I meant “like the bailouts and stuff?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “throwing money at dismal businesses is nothing short of robbery.”
At this she stepped up to my challenge saying “well we believe in taking from each according to his ability and giving to each according to his need.” She too was a fan of Marx.
“That's a nice ideal,” I said, “but let's face the fact that people are happier and produce more when they can potently improve their lot. And it's productivity that really matters. Besides, many of the big environmental issues come down to distorting the supply and demand.” I left her dumbfounded and with my signature in support of the local queers who might benefit.
It was only on recent reflection that I really recognised what this exchange had meant. The truth was that supporters of green and social justice causes are marginalised by their reluctance to embrace the free market; and if they did, then they might start to make headway. Here is what Dean Baker, co-director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research and columnist for the Guardian online, wrote about the financial crisis in the current Monthly magazine:
"In the current crisis, government intervention has taken the form of an insurance policy dubbed “too big to fail.”…This government protection allows the financial behemoths to make riskier investments, because their creditors know that the government will protect them against losses if things turn out badly. The demand for “deregulation” in this context does not constitute free-market ideology; rather, it reflects a desire to receive such government insurance without restrictions, and without paying for it… The same one-sided approach that Kevin Rudd accurately describes as “hypocritical” can be found in most areas of public policy when we look beyond the rhetoric."
Undoubtedly, the reason that the idea of free markets tends to trouble the left comes down to the fact that deregulation is frequently one sided. In fact, as far back as the 19th century, unions emerged in opposition to “freedom of contract” on the grounds that employers wanted workers to compete for scarce jobs (thus forcing their wages down) while retaining the right to collude within their industries to protect prices. The same thing still goes on today, with corporations using a scarcity of opportunity to squeeze artists and inventors for all they can get, and then using intellectual property to avoid competing in the arena of bringing new products to market. Let's face it: businesses do not want to compete and innovate, they want to squat on their old business models and perpetuate their influence on government by virtue of their scale and past success.
Yet instead of busting the power of commercial oligarchies, many on the left would prefer to throw money at environmental pet projects and protect jobs. And for all the future-oriented rhetoric, this strategy is incredibly short term and lacks the daring necessary for the systemic reforms we need. For instance, the best way to drive energy efficiency is to let prices rise and squeeze people into changing their lifestyle. And by pricing in the cost that smog imposes on the community (for example), we can motivate companies and drivers to compete on minimising the impact.