The Challenge

My blogging habits are so desultory in part because of one simple and cowardly rule: don’t get crosswise of Daniel Larison or Will Wilkinson. Oops.

Now that I’ve gone and provoked him, Will (Can we just use first names here? It’s starting to sound like a war movie.) lays out a worthwhile challenge:

Well, what market progressives like me want to see from “free-market traditionalists” like Frost, but never get, is actual evidence that the world in which the brake has been appplied tends to be a world in which people are doing better than in the world in which the throttle was left open.

As it happens, this is exactly what Polanyi is arguing in The Great Transformation: the retardation of Enclosure gave British society the time it needed to adapt to the drastic change and form a sustainable free market, unlike on the continent, where sudden market transformation caused radical, violent responses. Make of his evidence what you will.

…The problem in my experience is that conservatives tend to argue defensively and ad hoc. The sense of “meaning” or “rootedness” or “identity” conferred by church or local produce or not listening to people speak Spanish tends to be granted however much weight is needed to trump the straightforward humanitarian goods offered by the roiling market. And conservatives are forever seeing their most precious prejudice as the last prop of our patrimony, the liberal free market system. And so, through an amazing dialectical alchemy, the defense of whatever is threatened by economic dynamism becomes its only salvation. If this form of argument could be made in a principled way, I could be persuaded by it.

I agree! Like Will, I am convinced of the humanitarian benefits of the market, and while I am intuitively inclined to value some intangibles that Will would dismiss, I don’t expect him to be able to tell the difference between them and the bogus “senses of” things that he mentions. So if I’m going to convince a market progressive to see things my way, any special pleading for exceptions requires arguing in terms of human welfare, not vague and subjective appeals to cohesion or whatever. Fair enough. I think there’s still a case to be made, but I’m unfortunately not the guy to make it yet.

So where do I start? I’ve been told that Wilhelm Röpke is as good a place as any.