Sunday, 17 March 2013

What is the free market?

As a libertarian, in principle I'm keen on the free market, along with other forms of freedom. But this doesn't mean that I'm keen on the kind of economic system that we currently inhabit, or the results that it produces. As you may or may not have noticed, there is no such thing as a free market anywhere in the world: economic transactions are everywhere shaped, constrained, distorted by laws, regulations, taxes, tariffs, etc.

I don't mean to say that I'd abolish all laws, even if had the power. There is a such a thing as a 'bad freedom': for instance, the freedom to kill other people, which reduces their freedom to zero and thus depletes the total amount of freedom in society. Laws are necessary to constrain such behaviour, although it seems to me that the laws we have are too many and too complex.

It's common for opponents of free markets to point to the outcomes of our present system and blame "the free market" for them. The obvious reply is, "What free market?" There is no such thing in the world. We have markets constrained by law. If we want different outcomes, we can get different outcomes by changing the laws. And, indeed, I agree that the current system and its outcomes are not ideal and that some changes could be beneficial.

The basis of the free market is that someone grows apples and offers them for sale at a price; customers buy the apples if they want apples and find the price reasonable and competitive. Most people understand this system and accept it. The problem is that, these days, we have complications that people don't understand or accept so well. Such as the concept of the limited company, the concept of intellectual property, and the growth of financial transactions that enable people to make money by playing with money, without producing any goods themselves. These modern concepts are of course defined and shaped by laws, and I think these are the laws that should be considered for tweaking in order to produce outcomes that people like better. I don't think the present laws are really doing a good job; and of course they don't represent "the free market" in action, because no system constrained by laws is free.

Given that we have an unfree market anyway, and we are always likely to have, the question is in what ways should it be unfree? What minimal set of laws will permit a maximum feasible degree of freedom while being understandable and acceptable to ordinary people? I can't provide an answer to this question, but I think it's a question worth asking.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Why I'm not a vegetarian

First of all, I think we should probably all be vegetarians. The argument goes like this. Suppose that we're visited by aliens from outer space, who are significantly more intelligent and powerful than we are, and regard us as animals. They decide to start systematically farming, killing, and eating us. How could we regard them as wrong, or criticize their behaviour? It's merely what we've always done to others.

In practice, I think it's rather unlikely that aliens from outer space would find humans either tasty or nutritious, but it's possible, so we should take it into account.

So far, I haven't thought of any good answer to this argument, and I suspect that humanity will gradually turn vegetarian in the future. However, I list below an assortment of my personal excuses for not yet becoming a vegetarian myself.

  • If the aliens turn up, they'll observe that humanity in general farms, kills, and eats animals. I don't suppose they'll distinguish between one human and another. So going vegetarian at this point wouldn't do me any good.
  • Having grown up in an omnivorous society, it's what I'm accustomed to, and it's the way society encourages me to live. Going against the grain of society is difficult in various ways.
  • If there were no humans on the planet, animals would rarely be able to die peacefully in their sleep. I think the normal ways would be to die painfully at the teeth and claws of some other animal, to die of disease, or to die of starvation when unable to get enough food. By killing and eating animals, humans aren't really introducing anything new to the situation: animals eat each other and most of them die painfully, one way or another.
  • On an ideal farm, animals may actually live better lives than in the wild. They're looked after, they get food and shelter in winter, their illnesses are treated, they're not usually attacked by carnivores, and in the end they're killed humanely. On a modern intensive farm, life probably isn't worth living, and they may die unpleasantly too; but that's the choice of the farmer. It can be done either way.
  • I'd be happy if all farms were ideal farms, although meat would then be much more expensive and most people would eat it only occasionally (which would probably be good for them). If farmers mistreat animals, that's on their conscience. It's not on my conscience, because I neither do it myself, nor do I force them to do it. If I buy their products, I give them a tiny encouragement, but it's so tiny as to be negligible. Whether I buy meat or not is not going to make any difference to any farmer's decisions.
  • In principle I should seek out ideal farms and buy only from them, but even if this is feasible it would involve considerable time, effort, and expense, and I have to balance it against the negligible practical effect that my efforts would have.
  • These days my wife buys the food, anyway!