Market and Government Co-Dependence

The notion that markets need rules, and therefore rulemakers, which generally implies some form of government oversight, is anathema to libertarians. But as we have stressed before, the markets that the public at large thinks of as well-functioning, like the US stock markets, are in fact highly regulated and would not exist without it.

So we were glad to see Dani Rodrik (an economics professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and effective debunker of conventional wisdom) take up this issue at a higher level of abstraction in his post “More on the complementarity between markets and states“:

I have argued before that states are not the antithesis of markets, unlike what many libertarians (and their fellow travelers) believe. Mike Huben directs me to some relevant and useful writings by Stephen Holmes, the NYU political theorist. Here are a few good passages:

t is implausible […] to view liberal rights as naturally incompatible with political power, as if such rights flourish only when the state withers away. Authority and liberty are interdependent, not simply opposed. As Kant, among others, made dear, rights (including property rights) are defined and enforced by the state. Referring to “natural rights,” Emile Durkheim convincingly wrote that “the State creates these rights, gives them an institutional form, and makes them into realities.” To violate liberal rights is to disobey the liberal state. In a sovereignless condition, rights can be imagined but not experienced. In a society with a weak state, such as Lebanon for the past decade, rights themselves are weak or underenforced. Statelessness means rightlessness, as the story of migrating Kurds, Vietnamese and Caribbean boat people, and many others should by now have made abundantly clear….

Libertarian rhetoric about “getting the government off our backs” makes the positive correlation between individual rights and state power difficult to comprehend. Better guidance comes from classic liberals, who insisted that, when organized constitutionally, liberty and authority can be mutually reinforcing. Consider David Hume’s famous essay, “Of Commerce.” In this classic defense of liberal political economy, Hume argues that Britain should deregulate commercial and industrial life and welcome the accumulation of private wealth, because such a system will increase the resources “to which the public may lay claim.” An autocratic government, intent upon controlling all economic life, will decrease the stock of private wealth and thereby indirectly undermine its own power….

What can we learn by looking at preliberal arguments for typically liberal political institutions? We can learn, I think, to question the conventional interpretation of classical liberal theory as ardently anti-statist. Liberals were not anarchists. They were opposed to capricious and oppressive authority, not to authority in general. They embraced state power as a means both to prevent anarchy and to enforce impartial laws (against the grain of human partiality). Because they assumed that political rulers will themselves be human, and therefore partial and potentially unjust, they also devised institutional machinery to contain authority within legal channels. The constitutionalizing of authority is anti-authoritarian. But it does not imply a weakening or crippling of the state.

Huben also maintains a web site devote to the critique of libertarianism, where you can arm yourself for any argument you may have with a libertarian.

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One comment

  1. Anonymous

    the dialectical nature of this ‘co-dependence’ has to be taken into account, otherwise we fail to grasp evident contradictons between the political and economic, and this seems especially so during this second epoch of globalization with its rising of new and transnational forms of corporate organization, of production, distribution and finance.

    as evidenced by, e.g., bidding (i.e. subsidy to capital) wars between national states — there is incongruence and tension within a system of national states and not-national capital.

    differently, this is not, and cannot be, an equilibrium condition of symmetric dependence

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