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.
Perhaps the toughest nut to crack, however, is job security, which tends to give large industries an out by generating lots of hysteria about people losing their jobs if legislation fails to support them. Indeed, they often make the argument that lower wages would allow them to employ more people, though I am pretty sure that being able to pay less would give employers a reason to hire the same number of people for a higher profit. And what further complicates things is that the availability of time and money is essential to involving the community in political action (not to mention the fear of job loss provides enough reason to avoid a protest).
Modern activism is not just a matter of getting signatures and generating moral outrage, but also about the careful use of markets. Take for instance, the recent Get-Up campaign against the pulp mill being proposed by Gunns Ltd. First their action slowed legislation, though the proposal still managed to get Tasmanian government approval in spite of public outrage. So Get-Up reacted by using its large member base to threaten a boycott on every bank in the country that considered investing in the project. Failing to secure local investment, Gunns went overseas and is now seeking international funding, but Get-Up has followed by using member donations to place ads in the Financial Times. Clearly, the market is instrumental in modern activism, and while this issue may not be resolved in the immediate future, one can only wonder what activists might achieve by partnering with hedge funds to short stock in concert with the bad press and losses they generate. Activism requires its participants to have disposable time and money.
On the other hand, however, part of the excessive resource consumption that we see in modern society is surely linked to the failure of self-discipline on he part of consumers who do not save and optimise the use of what they already have. In my own case, for instance, the fact that I have rarely had consistent income has given me every reason to be protective of my savings, and for ten years I have managed to avoid purchasing computers by inheriting older machines and optimising their potential with open source software. Yet my younger sister has very little saved because she has always found suitable work.
Granted, it would be wonderful if we could solve our scarcity problems by putting an individual in charge of sharing and distribution, but, as Hayek was right to point out, their judgments would be completely arbitrary. The best solution to any commons dilemma, by far, is to auction off and privatise; thereby instilling in each a sense of responsibility for their own patch. The fact that governments possess the rights to all sorts of natural resources provides corporations with the opportunity to underpay for their purchases in exchange for campaign donations.
Yet there are many greens who would still prefer to link themselves to those who support government ownership and central planning because both they and socialists tend to be marginalised and alienated from the dominant political currents. A handful might concede that the practice of zoning creates pollution and unemployment by failing to place jobs close by, but instead of applying the market they assume that the solution is to plan more carefully.
Now, I am not saying that the government should avoid setting aside sections of the ecosystem – like river systems and old growth forests – as national treasures, which is the kind of thing that greens and socialists agree upon. But if we are to change society for the better, we must bring our fellow citizens to take responsibility for our aggregate choices instead of expecting someone else to figure everything out – which is exactly why governments are struggling to act on climate change.
Besides, if environmentalists like being on the fringe, it's a very small step to start hanging out with free marketeers.