Friday, 14 October 2011

C.J. Wu's Error

Yet another editorial in the Taipei Times today, by C.J. Wu of "Taiwan Thinktank" (of whom I have taken note here on two previous occassions), continues the now time-worn error of misusing the term "free-market". Look at this:
"...blindly believing in the free market results in a lack of freedom for 99 percent of people."
Either this was written under the now rampant intellectual error of conflating Isaiah Berlin's two distinct concepts of liberty, or one was unwittingly substituted for the other, or C.J. Wu is nothing more than a consciously dishonest enemy of freedom - and ought to be regarded and treated as such by anyone for whom intellectual integrity and freedom are cardinal values.

The error, assuming it is indeed error and not deliberate deviousness, is as follows...
  • There are two analytically distinct aspects of freedom: negative and positive. Negative freedom is the absence of coercion or other obstacles to action ("freedom from"), whilst positive freedom is the power to act in a given way ("freedom to"). In our everyday experience, they are often almost like two sides of the same coin, such that if I am unencumbered by external constraints (negative freedom), then I may have the power to perform a given action (positive freedom). So in an empirical sense it is easy to see how the two distinct aspects of freedom may be conflated.
  • In the context of social organization (today, that would be what we call "politics"), recognizing the analytical distinction between the two is of incalculable importance. The reason for that is this: the preservation of negative freedom in a market order contains no a-priori implication for the status of positive freedom for anybody - i.e. if everybody minds his or her own business and refrains from coercing others, there is no directly following implication for how much positive freedom anyone may have; by stark contrast, the attempt to engineer equality, or at least improvements, in positive freedom (what is often called "equality of opportunity" - another subtle intellectual error) by means of State social policies, logically necessitates the violation of at least some people's negative freedom - this is because all actions of the State involve forcible taxation and restriction of human action via legislation or regulation.
  • Consequently, given the diffuse means by which the State and the largest corporations necessarily interpenetrate one another and thereby attempt to govern the labour, capital and commodities markets it makes no sense to refer to this as a "free-market" order. The conflation of the two aspects of freedom - negative and positive - can lead directly to this confusion since the mind will naturally attend to the comparison between the power of politicians, bankers and corporations to act and the power of middle and working class people to act. What will typically be lost is the myriad ways in which this market order is governed by coercion and a pervasive disregard for the preservation of negative freedom in order to engineer the relative balance of positive freedoms.
A sharper intellect will recognize the momentous importance of that analytical distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom. For it is unambiguously the case that there can be no sense - none whatsover - in ascribing to the current market order the adjective "free", once it is made clear that it is the primary negative aspect of freedom that is under stipulation.

What is happening today is the result of a mixed (and increasingly politically dominated) market order - not a free market order, and the failure to recognize this by the likes of so-called "intellectuals" like C.J.Wu, who no doubt attended some expensive University, is going to have catastrophic consequences over the long term.

I would write to the Taipei Times on this point, but they now steadfastedly refuse to publish anything by me.

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