A friend of mine asked me a question: “if the free market is a person, what would the person be like?” Here is my answer.
The market is the embodiment of everybody, in aggregate. The market is everyman, the most precisely calculated mean average of humanity.
I know you will probably hate my answer. Being nearly forty years old, my answer is part of my weltanschauung, and the only way to counter it would be the same way those US Navy SEALS countered Osama Bin Laden’s weltanschauung. I have no choice but to share my weltanschauung honestly.
I like that word, by the way. Welt-an-schau-ung. The Nazis had a weltanschauung. That is not a reason to like weltanschauungs, but it proves that weltanschauungs are serious. They are far more serious than mere worldviews. Worldviews are ten a penny. But I digress.
I am a lefty who is disaffected with the left, or as I prefer to see it, I am like Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca. Rick knew how he wanted the world to be. He kept on helping the rebels, supplying them with weapons, so they could go on fighting for justice and freedom, even though they did not pay as well as the (victorious) other side. Okay, that does not sound very moral, but it is better than taking the bigger of the two pay packets. Rick also wanted to bed the hot Swede but she was married to another guy, so he helped them to escape the Nazis and their weltanschauung, which differed from his own.
Like Rick, I like to think that I do a bit here and a bit there, in the hopes of making the world very slightly better than it was before my bit was done. But, like Rick, I am inclined to see myself as just one man in the throng. Often the great mass of humanity seems to be pushing in the wrong directions, for reasons that they do not appreciate and hence cannot consciously change. It is within this context that we can personify the hydra-headed market.
The market is the old woman receiving her modest pension, oblivious to how it was fattened through productivity improvements in a Cambodian sweat shop. The market is the life assurance policy paid for by the doting family man, which in turn is invested in gensakis which provide finance to the Scotch whisky distilleries so beloved of Japanese salarymen who get drunk and beat their wives. The market is George Clooney, grinning away as he sips a Nespresso whilst filming a TV ad, not caring if Nestle’s advertising of baby milk really does encourage the needless death of one and half million children each year.
The market is a man in the airport. He is stopped by a journalist, and asked if he minds about security checks (and by implication, the tax he pays for them). His answer is: “no I don’t mind, because it’s better to be safe than sorry”. But nobody asks him if that money would have been better spent on mosquito nets, because every day the number of under five’s dying from malaria equals the total number of people killed by 9-11.
The market is the woman who buys a pre-packed salad from Tesco’s because it is healthy and convenient, and then rides home on their bike because it is better for the environment. She does not know that the salad was transported by truck from central Europe because that makes better economic sense for Tesco’s supply chain, meaning that every calorie the shopper burns riding their bike required the burning of 1000 calories of diesel to bring the salad to her.
And the market is that kid from Alabama who joined the military because of a lack of better job alternatives, and who went on to get selected as a Navy SEAL.
The market is any man, or woman, who sees into the future like men and women see the future. They might have poor eyesight, or they might be looking in the wrong direction, or they might have closed their eyes, or it might be night, and their torch might be broken. Maybe something is in the way, or they need a new prescription for their glasses. Or maybe the future is seen by an optimistic young man with 20/20 vision, sat upon a mountaintop on a clear and sunny day, whilst holding a pair of binoculars… but even he can only see so far. The market suffers a lack of vision like we all suffer a lack of vision. And by now, given the length of this post, the average kid would have noted tl;dr whilst most other people just stopped reading without knowing what tl;dr stands for. So even if I am correct, it does not mean I could ever effectively communicate this idea to others. That is my personification of the market, which is the personification of people in aggregate.
The people see what they see, they hear what they hear. Their actions have consequences, but they may not be able to tell what those consequences are. The market is just the cumulative agent of their individual actions, in the same way that a person’s personality is represented by the clothes that they wear, their jewelery, the books on their shelves, their car, their holiday destination and their ringtone, all of which were acquired through the market. The consequences of their choices ripple on across time and space, across borders, changing the lives of people in faraway places. Those consequences may pollute the planet for future generations, or kill their children with second-hand smoke. They may acquire nuclear reactors designed to withstand catastrophes that occur once in a thousand years, and then be surprised when just such a catastrophe happens tomorrow.
Consequences may travel on indefinitely, but the eyes and ears and minds of the market can only travel so far. The market is no more Hitler than it is the man on the Clapham omnibus. At least one of Hitler’s paintings must have been bought by somebody nice. The average Joe, Uncle Jo Stalin, Joe the Plumber… they are all part of the market, no matter how much they pretend otherwise. It may be comforting to see the world in terms of heroes and villains, but if the market is a villain, then it can only be because people are generally villainous, or at best that they are generally negligent of the consequences of their choices.
Sorry about that. Like I said, the answer is part of my weltanschauung. A weltanschauung is for life, not just for Christmas. But it does not take much to see that the problems of [insert number here] little people do not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The market will never be truly reformed unless we all learn to work together in our best collective interests. On that day, there would be no more buyers and sellers, only a single family of mankind, seeing clearly, and not needing a marketplace in order to exchange what they can give for what they want and need.
It is true that the free market is often despicable. The free market despises us back, valuing us only according to what we can supply, and who wants it. But as the character of Ugarte says to Rick in Casablanca:
You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.
And that is the market personified.