John Quiggin complains that what the classic essay I, Pencil actually shows is the wonders of a mixed economy, not the market. The essay traces all the amazing transactions that need to occur for a simple pencil to be made, pointing out that not one of the people involved could make a pencil by themselves, and most of them don't even know that they're involved in producing a pencil. But what about the US Forestry Service? Rail rights of way? The education system?
It's rude to call someone's post a complaint, but all's fair in war and economics, we suppose. Still, it has the air of a child sitting in the back seat of a station wagon and whining "Mom, Bobby's making faces at me!"
This is an argument to which the left-wing has a great deal of recourse whenever anyone suggests that people have a right to keep what they earn from voluntary transactions. You can only make money in the context of society, and so society has a right to regulate your transactions, and seize the proceeds, in any way that society sees fit.
This is pure Ayn Rand. (I knew reading that book would come in handy.) "Society" is an amorphous blob of humanity that, due to its own mediocrity and therefore lack of success, envies your money and will take it from you by coercion. McArdle just paid her income taxes and is a bit touchy on the idea of the government taking money out of people's pockets where it belongs so they can save up for a kitchen remodel. Society is a money-grubbing thief that is just waiting to grab the sweat of your brow, as it refuses to sweat for itself. Mr. Quiggen's post does not, in fact, advocate the grubbing of money at all, and instead supports the necessity and the reality of regulation and government participation in markets, but other people's ideas are often merely the jumping off point for McArdle, who interprets economics through minutely detailed discussions of her recent consumer purchases and pet peeves.
McArdle's free market ardor leads her down some unfortunate paths, however.
And yet, the argument applies just as well to our sex lives or our political beliefs: they take place in the context of all sorts of government protections, from rape prosecutions to whistleblower laws.
You like free markets in sex, don't you? So why don't you like free markets in the selling of goods and services? Oh, snap!
Without markets and the government, the "anything between two consenting adults" morality to which the majority of the elite subscribes would be impossible; the closest substitute for these things is family, and families have a very clear, deep, and persistent interest in regulating the sexual behavior of their members.
This must be aimed at liberals, since they are supposedly the ruling elite now, which is why Megan McArdle is working for them and not the oligarchy. It seems that our liberal ruling elite believe that anything goes when it comes to sex, as they are notoriously in favor of giving civil rights to everyone, and therefore support prostitution, polygamy, gay sex and bestiality, as long as the animal is not an endangered species.
We are not quite sure what McArdle means by the participation of markets in people's sex lives; perhaps she means the selling of "marital aids," condoms and women in short skirts on street corners. Perhaps not, who can tell? We also cannot figure out what she means to say by dangling the threat of family control of sexuality. If we outlaw CDOs, Father will sell us for a few goats and a sheepskin? Mother will forbid Father from going to College Night at Hooters? Both parents will forbid middle-aged Megan from shacking up with her boyfriend? The possibilities are as endless, we suppose.
Does this mean that the government (or our employers) may properly restrict our sexual behavior to that of which a majority of our neighbors approve? That bed you're having sex in probably travelled on the interstate highway system, so standby for government inspection . . .
Yes, Megan McArdle really believes that if BP is regulated, we will inevitably slide down the slippery slope of regulation until we end up with a Sex Inspector writing out tickets from under the mattress.
The next time someone tells us how smart and thoughtful McArdle is, we will simply link to that passage and hit "post." The government regulates sex, but you don't want the government to regulate your sex life, do you??? So why do you want the government to regulate commerce? Think, people!
No? The government can't do that? Then why is this argument supposed to be a telling blow against arguments for strong property rights and freedom from interference in voluntary economic transactions?
I'm certainly happy to argue that libertarians and conservatives underestimate the extent to which markets are supported by regulations and laws that shape transactions away from destructive ends. But that doesn't mean that markets aren't pretty great--or that the government therefore has the right to regulate things in any way that the government pleases.
This obligatory and insincere caveat was brought to you by The Atlantic Circulation Department, which is getting tired of seeing "Hell, no!" written on subscription renewal forms.
All the activity of a modern human takes place in the context of society. That requires balancing of individual rights and the common good. But this is not a blank check for the government to trample rights as it pleases . . . nor a blanket answer when people complain that the government has gotten too intrusive.
Therefore we should leave the poor corporations alone and let them work their free market magic in peace, since markets are pretty great. And so is sex.