11 December 2008

A Critique of Reason

The only religious publication I read on a regular basis or subscribe to is called Reason. The magazine's motto is "Free Minds and Free Markets," and the assumption that the two automatically go together is its declaration of faith. Reason is a libertarian publication, but it's also a magazine about the real world. Though its biases are annoying, it often has insights about how the world works that you can respect regardless of ideology. Its regular section of vignettes from the news often fairly points out the stupidity of politicians. Since denying that "the market" is always right doesn't mean I think that "government" is always right, I welcome these episodes as useful illustrations of how politicians can screw things up.

The new issue that came in the mail this week is the usual mixed bag. It includes an intriguing commentary of "justice porn," i.e. the genre of judge shows infesting daytime television. Greg Beato rightly sees an authoritarian tendency in these programs that exalt their judges as modern Solomons who can cut through the usual legal crap to make absolute moral decisions about people's petty problems. Beato also sees a contradiction: the TV judges often complain about litigants wasting their time on picayune matters, but the overall effect of the genre is to encourage litigiousness in viewers -- and why not, when you consider the money made by Judge Judy and her ilk? Also, book reviewer Damon W. Root makes a good point while reviewing a biography of Thomas Jefferson and his "concubine" Sally Hemmings. While modern critics often call Jefferson a hypocrite for writing the Declaration of Independence while holding slaves, Root points out that future slaveholders came to hate the Declaration while anti-slavery activists took heart from it -- so, hypocrisy or not, Jefferson must have been onto something right, and the nation is better off for it.

Overall, though, Reason sends a disturbing message in its first extended commentaries on the Bailout and the ongoing economic crisis. The Bailout itself comes in for rightful criticism, most eloquently when the final page shows a heavily redacted Treasury document that keeps secret the money paid out to banks and law firms that will handle details of the plan. There's also a fairly objective analysis of the housing bubble by Mike Flynn that shares out the blame among politicians and reckless financiers. More often, though, writers are satisfied to deprecate any effort by government to soften the blow of the economic downturn or shield "innocents" from consequences they didn't cause. On the plane of pure economics, the writers probably have a point; the economy well might recover more quickly if allowed to hit bottom faster. But there's a certain inhumanity to the underlying attitude, as if the needs of "the market" must have priority over the needs of human beings. Government, they argue, will be better off telling people to tighten their belts rather than offering palliatives that only perpetuate the crisis. There's nothing wrong with tightening belts or relearning frugality, except perhaps when our trading partners are concerned, but there's a disquieting subtext to Reason's objectivity. It all starts to sound like the expounding of a higher law: when the market requires you to suffer, you must suffer, and you have no right of appeal. You see this in Robert J. Samuelson's heroic account of how Ronald Reagan and Paul Volcker beat "the Great Inflation" of the 1970s by orchestrating a devastating recession in the early 1980s, at great risk to Reagan's popularity. Samuelson's view is that allowing the recession to happen was the only way for the economy to rebound higher than before. Again, there may be academic truth to this, but with it comes an attitude that makes markets matter more than people. This is typical of the libertarian reverence for markets: since capitalism is all about "creative destruction," in order for markets to create, they must be allowed to destroy, or else the creative people are deprived of their just desserts. This may be "Reason" for libertarians, but I don't know if the underlying assumptions about human nature or how society should work would withstand genuine reasoned scrutiny.

Despite its blithely unexamined ideology, Reason fortunately lacks the contemptuous stridency of much libertarian literature. It's probably the most palatable dose of libertarianism you'll care to consume, with just enough of a strong viewpoint to arouse your critical sense. Since the writers have the journalistic sense to appeal to experience and facts more than to dogma, you'll find yourself challenged, but a free mind ought to be able to figure out that "free markets," at least as understood here, aren't the answer for every question.

1 comment:

The Crime Think Collective said...

Isn't that vaguely like hitching your wagon to a team of horses, then throwing away the reins and trusting the horses to take you where you want to go?

Just as a team of horses require a set of reins and a competent driver, so the market requires a set of regulations and a competent government.