Sunday, July 01, 2012

personal responsibility through collective suffering

I'm no economist, which explains why I attempted to describe the economy using "deadlocks" and "local minima/maxima". And I suspect that many other commentators aren't economists either, which explains why their preferred analysis also comes from a different domain: morality. Within that frame, economic decisions are moral decisions; decisions in the context of efficient markets result in swift and appropriate moral consequences. Personal responsibility is a synonym for the level of economic success.

Like many perspectives, this one has an unsurprising problem: its implications aren't a perfect fit for all reality. For example, market shifts in the unit price of fossil-based fuel have unavoidable consequences on anyone who has no substitute method of transportation to and from the workplace, yet the sole cause of these shifts isn't their personal decisions. Nor are they personally responsible for drastic adjustments in the market price of their largest assets. Nor are the downsized employees of a company responsible for the new competing product that decimated the company's number of customers. In an actual massive economy, relatively tiny participants might not have meaningful personal responsibility for their current level of economic success. (Although they decide how to adapt to the changes, of course.) Poetically, transactions link the fates of many, whether temporary or ongoing, whether material or contractual.

Hence, while the moralistic interpretation is sometimes accurate and instructive, it also has pragmatic limits. To prescribe grave and unrestricted consequences is to affect the "innocent" as well as the "wrongdoer". To permit a woeful decision to ricochet is to watch escalating damage to the bystanders. It's paradoxical. Market "punishment" can be effectively unjust. The perpetrator might be able to absorb the fall in wealth without much harm but the same loss eliminates the net worth of multiple others.

I agree that personal responsibility is a vital principle for a realistic free market. I agree that an economy without risks is an economy without a brighter future. But I disagree that the entire thing must be left sick whenever a slob sneezes, in order to ensure the slob's maximum pain.

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