#37 On free markets

Dear Mat,

Good questions. I guess I am being ideological, in the sense that it’s impossible not to be. I take it that more freedom for more people is better ex ante: that’s an ideology. But I claim it’s an open-ended ideology that can lead to more goals being explored in the future and even re-writing or discarding older goals. Hence I think — in a necessarily changing world — it’s a superior ideology to any static ideology (theocracy, communism, agrarian utopianism, etc.). We agree on this basic liberalism.  Do you see that as an ideology?

I also like a  free market. It increases freedom, ratchets down people’s incentives to kill the shit out of each other, opens new options, etc. Obviously I think there should be some rules that prevent ruin or exploitation: contract laws, workers’ unions, punishment for white collar offences, no corporate welfare, etc. Capitalism with a human — neither male nor female — face. Again I guess this kind of capitalism is an ideology, but a defensible one because it is open-ended and at least has improvement and error-correction built into it.

The popular idea of a free market, especially the labour market, also assumes a meritocracy. Alas, we currently run a large-scale, unconscious, decentralised affirmative action program that supports men. Unconscious gender bias — by men and women — is well demonstrated. Send out identical resumes with names changed to indicate gender* and the results are predictable. Women are also perceived as talking for longer than men even when they talk less. Women are seen as difficult or emotional for identical behaviour that, in men, is seen as assertive and masterful. Women are less likely to ask for raises and, when they do, less likely to receive them. There’s heaps and it explains at least a chunk of the pay gap and supports what you would expect, given there has been centuries of inertia in male dominated worlds.

The other side of it, that you point out, is that freedom can amplify asymmetries. Classic example is Iran, with an even M/F split in engineering. The point is they (and men) are coerced to go into engineering for the good of the nation. In Australia women have more freedom, yet few women do engineering. Are they coerced into something else? Not like they are in Iran. Are women here happier with more optionality? Surely. But it’s totally possible that having a system where women can be heroes might not precipitate that happening.

So be it. Men and women need to die by the sword, just like firms in a free market should. But they have to be free to start with. Freedom is about options one can exercise as well as constraints that nudge you toward better options (where better is partly about increasing future options). But there’s still so much vestigial institutional and cultural sexism that glugs up our relatively free system.

I hope this answers your questions.

A final speculative point. I’ve been thinking for a long time that in Western countries the women who would naturally rise to leadership positions are often turned off areas like finance, business, IT and engineering because of their capitalistic associations. Academic or political feminism is anti-capitalism. I think this is a grave error. Deliberately avoiding the most powerful sectors in society guarantees less power. Sadly, I have won no converts. I think feminism should be aligned with other emancipatory movements: atheism, free speech, freedom of commerce, workplace rights, anti-racism and LGBTIQ movements. But only the last three are typically seen as emancipatory by many feminists.

In any case, all feminists are right that women are treated unfairly in overt and subtle ways. And they have been for 100% of known history. That’s perhaps the only absolute statement you can make about history.



*Incidentally, all this is ditto for non-white ethnicity as well.


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