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The natural state

October 20, 2010

I have an overly-literal mind, I’ve been told. I’ve always maintained that it’s impossible to believe in the supernatural, because anything that exists is natural by definition. An obvious point, but failure to note this gives conservative’s one big leg-up in “Markets are natural, States are not” rhetoric. Consider this self-imploding reader’s rant, which Andrew Sullivan gave an A-fucking-men:

Where does Rick Hertzberg think society’s ability to give people “enough to eat and a roof over their heads” comes from, if not from those economic liberties and rights he holds as secondary? It’s all from the surplus created by the division of labor and comparative advantage. The overflowing abundance that marks modern society – where people like Hertzberg can make a comfortable living writing for The New Yorker without ever cultivating his own food, weaving his own clothes, building his own home, and so on – would not exist if not for the continued protection of free enterprise and private property. (And he dares to quote Adam Smith in his follow-up post!?)

Free enterprise comes before voting.

If I can steal generously from Hayek for a second, society didn’t develop the complexity that it has today because everyone in a small village in 2,500 B.C., or 100 A.D., or 1640s New England got together and voted to divide their time and effort in order to provide goods and services for exchange; this happens organically. This happens because it has proven, over thousands of years, to be the most efficient and mutually-beneficial means of getting past subsistence and reaching a better life. Without this, there is no possibility for organized self-government and modern civil rights.

In what possible viable world view could the “right to vote” be valued more favorably than property rights and the freedom of enterprise?

First, I’ll point out the reader conflates the division of labor with free enterprise. These are very different things. The division of labor started the first time one caveman decided to hunt, and another to gather. It’s only accelerated since then. Meanwhile, free enterprise is a state of affairs that has never existed – never, not once, from the moment that the first priest on the Mesopotamian flood plain coordinated the activity of a village of farmers to the current regime of regulated nation states.

But notice something else going on here: the reader claims that the division of labor happened organically because the tests of time proved it to be the most efficient way of organizing human productive activity. But guess what else grew over the last couple of millennia and has withstood the tests of time? The state. And the growth was natural as the growth of the market: one set of hierarchies folding into another, progressively larger state apparatuses emerging. It’s nothing but polemics to call something so fundamental to the concept of civilization “artificial.”

Here’s the deal: State power integrates markets (Evidence: The Babylonian Empire. The Roman Empire. The Arabian Empire. The British Empire. Etc.) Integrated markets further the division of labor. Productivity grows, leading state power to grow. And then state power integrates more markets. In short, States and markets love each other.

The idea is just laughable that there were peasants in the south of France who really wanted to inextricably link their fates with a bunch of unseen-others in Paris, but the mean feudal lords wouldn’t let them engage in free enterprise.

One key to future economic health is to move past the silly dichotomy of natural markets/artificial states. Business doesn’t like the state because the state taxes their profits. End of story. It would be awfully noble for the Chamber of Commerce to be spending all of this money because the state is interfering with some higher-order precondition for system-wide productive efficiency!

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