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14.11.03

A Liberal Solution To A Marxist Problem

Wednesday night I went to a debate that pitted John Williamson -- one of the foremost defenders of the IMF's policies -- against Robert Poland and Dick Peet -- two of its prominent critics. I found Peet's comments on selfishness interesting.

Both Peet and Poland agreed with the basic insight of Adam Smith that capitalism and the market function based on people's selfishness. That is, instead of using an appeal to someone's altruism, or coercive force, a buyer in a market appeals to a seller's selfishness. "I'll give you this money (which you covet) if you'll bake me some bread/build me a car/etc." Poland seemed to further agree with Smith's view -- shared by most classical liberals -- that this selfishness is part of human nature. The classical liberal position in favor of the market is that it effectively channels this innate selfishness into benefitting society (though Poland's agreement does not extend that far, since in his opinion the market suffers from "the Marx problem" (downward pressure on wages), "the Keynes problem" (business cycles), and "the Polanyi problem" (loss of social solidarity)).

Peet, on the other hand, took a typically Marxist line -- while capitalism requires selfishness, it does not find that selfishness ready-made. Capitalism produces selfishness, propagandizing us with advertising to condition us to think we deserve more and more products for ourselves.

One audience member asked Peet how he thought we could combat this advertising. He offered two answers. The first was to broadcast counter-ads, using the power of advertising to push for the goals of socialism rather than the goals of capitalists. This answer is consistent with the view in Marxism, strengthened by some postmodernists like Foucault, that truth is a product of ideology and power.

His second answer was that we need to teach children reading, writing, arithmetic, and deconstruction. If everyone learns to see through the ploys of advertisers, they wouldn't be able to manipulate us and condition us in ways that make us better customers for them. This struck me as a classical liberal solution. The classical liberal view of truth is that the objective use of reason operating on good information will necessarily lead to apprehension of the truth. Indeed, the perfect working of the market's invisible hand depends on this ability to objectively assess things, so as to make deals that are the most beneficial to oneself. If advertising is as persuasive as Peet suggests, then a true defender of the market would dislike it, on the grounds that it enriches the advertiser by subverting the ability of the customer to think rationally about his or her choices. Peet's second prescription for dealing with advertising, then, seems founded on the idea that this kind of clear sight (achieved by deconstructing advertisers' manipulations) is both possible and beneficial.

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