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Mysterious Sentences

Friday, February 17, 2017 10:55
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(Don Boudreaux)


Jim Ziegler sent to me this long essay by Bruce Schneier.  So far I’ve had time only to skim the essay.  My skimming leaves me less than impressed, although a more-careful reading might change my assessment of the essay as a whole.  But I’m quite certain that even ten careful re-reads will not cause me to regard this paragraph with anything other than a snicker:

Market thinking sometimes makes us lose sight of the human choices and autonomy at stake. Before we get controlled – or killed – by the world-size robot, we need to rebuild confidence in our collective governance institutions. Law and policy may not seem as cool as digital tech, but they’re also places of critical innovation. They’re where we collectively bring about the world we want to live in.

The first sentence of this paragraph is especially mysterious.  How is it that thinking about individuals each being free to choose in settings that typically offer a wide-variety of options “sometimes makes us lose sight of the human choices and autonomy at stake”?  I do not doubt that poorly informed people often think of, and speak of, markets as if markets are autonomous forces that not only are independent of the countless individuals whose choices are the very stuff of market processes, but also are higher entities with purposes and desires – entities that ‘rule’ individuals who operate within markets.

But such “market thinking” isn’t really market thinking; it flawed thinking.  One of the central virtues of markets – at least in comparison with what I’m sure Mr. Schneier means by “collective governance institutions” (namely, the state) – is precisely that in markets each individual has maximum autonomy and scope for choosing.  Restrict and regulate markets with state diktats and watch human choices and autonomy shrink.

When I do “market thinking,” above all I see the importance and reality of human choices and individual autonomy.


The final sentence of the above-quoted paragraph is also especially mysterious.  Or, well, it would be mysterious if the notion there expressed weren’t so common.  Yet it’s a notion that is palpably mistaken, as familiarity with Arrow’s Theorem and public-choice scholarship make plain.  Strictly speaking, there is no detailed-enough collective preference for a “world we want to live in.”  Beyond agreement on platitudes and a few very broad aspirational goals, we individuals differ too much from each other in our specific preferences and beliefs about social reality to make a “collective” preference for a “world we want to live in” real.  No such thing exists, despite political-romantics’ frequent references to this mythical creature.

One of the most egregious errors of modern times is the widespread habit of assuming that the outcomes of democratic elections and of the operations of democratic governments are, or reflect, a “collective preference” that is comparable to an individual’s preference.

On this last point especially, Mr. Schneier would do well to study carefully the works of scholars such as Kenneth Arrow, Jim Buchanan, Bryan Caplan, Harold Demsetz, Robert Higgs, Randy Holcombe, Dwight Lee, Michael Munger, Mancur Olson, Sam Peltzman, Charles Plott, William Riker, George Stigler, Gordon Tullock, and Richard Wagner.


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