Monday, February 5, 2007

Magic Market Fairy Dust

As nearly as I can tell, the basic position of the Conservative Movement about racism in America is derived from two propositions, 1) There isn’t any racism in America any more, (except the liberal racism that is exemplified by affirmative action) and 2) What racial discrimination exists today is a rational response to market forces.

The Conservative Movement’s assault on affirmative action is pretty obvious, and is predicated on proposition 1, that there is no racist discrimination against African Americans anymore. That allows the framing of the debate about affirmative action in the same terms as the debate about “reparations” for slavery. Do past injustices require present remedies? That is a classic example of begging the question, in this case, the question of current racial discrimination. Given the fact of current racist discrimination against minorities, affirmative action would be more sensibly viewed as a not very good attempt to compensate for that discrimination in some way.

But the market argument is more pernicious, since it relies on what I’ve come to call “magic market fairy dust.” This is the generally unexamined assumption that whatever happens when “the market decides” is good and true and beautiful. Conversely, any attempt to “interfere” with the market must produce results that are bad, false, and ugly.

One notable dispenser of magic market fairy dust is Dinesh D'souza, a fellow at the Hoover Institution whose books include Illiberal Education, about how intolerant American universities are of conservatives, and The End of Racism, about how there isn’t any racism in America anymore, except among blacks and liberals.

D’souza’s work on racism is almost entirely a matter of seeking mechanisms for individual racist attitudes, then claiming, because there is a mechanism involved, it doesn’t represent racism. For example, he notes that in the rebellion against slavery, the “bad nigger” became a symbol of defiance and a hero to his people (see, for example, the legend of Stagolee). This rebellious attitude then became part of the norm, to the detriment of black integration into (now without racism, remember) white society.

Of course, rebellion against authority is a generally attribute of American culture generally, and suburban white kids are big fans of Ice T and 50 Cent. But the suburban white kid can simply put on a suit and tie and speak normally at the job interview. No matter what the black kid does, he’s still going to be black.

D’souza’s argument becomes even more stark when he writes about cab drivers failing to pick up blacks, a “rational” judgment, he suggests, given the higher crime rates among blacks.
Here is the magic market fairy dust in its starkest form. Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Suppose someone were to take a dislike to some author/speaker, Dinesh D’souza, for example. Suppose that someone were a handy sort of fellow, maybe like Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and this fellow set about planting bombs in places like bookstores that carried D’souza’s books, auditoriums where D’souza would speak, maybe even the Hoover Institution.

Would D’souza still get $10,000 per speaking engagement, and would he get as many as he gets now? Let’s assume that he would not, that bookstores and speakers bureaus would make the “rational” judgment that it was not worth the risk, so some bookstores wouldn’t stock the book, and some speaking engagements would simply go away.

Would this be okay with D’souza? Would he consider it fine because the market was the one making those decisions? Or would he, just possibly blame the guy who was setting the bombs?

The market takes all available information and converts it into prices. If some group of people undervalues black employees, then that will be reflected in the market price for blacks. “Rational” or not, it is unjust, and to pretend otherwise is also unjust.

I believe that economics is a science, and that “the market” is a phenomenon that is described by economics. In that sense it is like gravity. One doesn’t look at a crashed aircraft and say, “That’s gravity in action.” One doesn’t step off a balcony and say, “Let gravity decide.” So why should one look at poverty and say, “The market in action.” Why should one point our horribly inefficient and baroque health care system and say, “Let the market decide?” Why would you look at someone lumping people into a group by skin color and say, “That’s rational.”

At its core, the Conservative Movement is very clear about what it wants, more money for corporations and rich people, criminal penalties for certain drugs and sexual behavior, control of information and the public discourse. Movement conservatives seem to have no problem gimmicking markets whenever is necessary to advance those goals. But whenever there is some attempt to do something that is inconsistent with the Movement agenda, the market becomes inviolate, and the “problem,” like racism, poverty, health care, is made to vanish by sprinkling it with magic market fairy dust, which is pretty potent stuff, provided you want to trudge along the same old path and call it flying.

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