Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Cavanaugh On Freedom, Desire, and the Market

Two corollaries follow from this conception of voluntary exchange. The first is that freedom is defined negatively, as freedom from the interference of others, especially from the state. Freedom is what exists spontaneously in the absence of coercion. This approach is agnostic about the positive capacities of each party to a transaction, for example, how much power or property each party has at his or her disposal. To be free, it suffices that there be no external interference. The second is that a free market has no telos , that is, no common end to which desire is directed. Each individual chooses his or her own ends. As Friedrich Hayek says, "this recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends" does not mean there can be no common action among individuals, but the ends on which such actions are based are merely the "coincidence of individual ends"; "what are called ‘social ends’ are for [a free market view] merely identical ends of many individuals – or ends to the achievement of which individuals are willing to contribute in return for the assistance they receive in the satisfaction of their own desires." To claim that desires can be ordered either rightly or wrongly to objectively desirable ends has no place in a free market. To stake such a claim within the market itself would be to interfere in the freedom of the market. As Michael Novak says, democratic capitalism --of which a free market is a crucial component -- is built on the explicit denial of any unitary order. There is no common telos or "sacred canopy" above the diversity of desires, only an "empty shrine" or "wasteland" where common goals used to stand.


Nevertheless, the idea that this type of economy is free is also problematic. The problem with this view is that it assumes that the abolition of objective goods provides the conditions for the individual will to function more or less autonomously. The reality, however, is quite different. For as Augustine sees clearly, the absence of objective goods does not free the individual, but leaves it subject to the arbitrary competition of wills. In other words, in the absence of a substantive account of the good, all that remains is sheer arbitrary power, one will against another. This is what Augustine calls the libido dominandi , the lust for power with which Pharaoh was possessed. Without the idea that some goods are objectively better than others, the movement of the will can only be arbitrary. Persuasion in this context can only be the domination of one will over another. The will is moved by the greater force, and not by any intrinsic attraction to the good. The difference between authority and sheer power has been eliminated.


In the absence of any objective conception of the good, sheer power remains. The prevailing models of business strategy recognize this fact and are unsentimental about it. For example, marketing is marketed on the one hand to the broader public as the provision of information about products so that consumers may make choices that are both informed and voluntary. Here consumers are depicted as autonomous and rational, perfectly sovereign over their choices of products and ends. On the other hand, marketing presents itself in-house to its practitioners and clients as a machine fully capable of creating desire and delivering it to its intended goal. These two aspects of marketing are two sides of the same coin; marketing can manipulate desire successfully in part because of its success in convincing the broader public of consumers that their desires are not being manipulated.

-William Cavanaugh, The Unfreedom of the Free Market (PDF)

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