Re: Gov't Loves Gov't

Charlie Stross (
Fri, 23 Jan 1998 11:37:27 +0000

On Thu, Jan 22, 1998 at 06:20:15PM +0000, Warrl kyree Tale'sedrin wrote:
> Look at what the relatively unsuccessful systems have in common:
> concentration of political power, as compared to the successful
> systems.

Yes. Top-down control doesn't work well, except in situations where there's
a clearly-defined goal to work towards -- which is not a characteristic of
society at large.

> But if political power is not concentrated, what people actually do
> is free-market capitalism.

Er, yeah. And what's the goal of most of the participants? (Could it
be, by any chance, the centralization of power? If for no other
reason than the sentiment expressed in the old adage about shit sandwiches.)

> You cannot ENFORCE any alternative to free-market capitalism, except
> by means that are already known to be worse than free-market
> capitalism. And if you don't enforce the alternative, you won't get
> the alternative.

On the contrary. Why do people try to wheel and deal? Nobody holds a gun
to their heads and says "you're gonna be a good capitalist todauy, boy,
or I'm sending you to the People's Number Four Holiday Camp for
re-education in Proper Corporate Behaviour," do they? (Well, actually
they _do_, in this here wonderful country -- the UK -- or at least
that's what the government seems to be trying to do. But that's a rant
of a different stripe ...) No: the reason people try to engage in
free-market exchanges is because those exhanges seem to be beneficial to
them. And usually they are, although this ain't invariably the case if
one of the parties to the transaction is determined to rip off the

This last point is important. You can argue until you're blue in the
face that a free market is best, but unless you can ensure that it
_stays_ a free market -- and functions properly, without abuse by the
participants -- then you've got problems. (I classify as 'abuse'
activities where one participant defrauds, suckers, or otherwise
exploits another without their willing connivance. This includes
attempts to establish a monopoly or manipulate the market itself
in order to skew the 'level playing field'. Any problems with this
working definition?)

Now, as someone else pointed out here recently:

People are stooopid.

Most people are bad as assessing risks. They tend to value short-term
limited gain over long-term benefits. They view disastrous but rare
risks as being more dangerous than smaller-scale but more common risks
(for example, airliner crashes against car crashes).

It's usually in your best interests to cooperate with other people,
assuming they don't defect; but most people can be tempted into
defecting by a prospect of short-term gain. This leads to the problem of
common goods; areas where it's in your interests if everyone else
cooperates, but where it's also in your interests to defect.

A pure market system doesn't recognize most commons because they don't
have any component that's amenable to trade. If you introduce something
that can be traded -- say, air polution permits that lets you emit CO2 --
well, you can apply market economics to a commons problem (in this case,
air polution). But to do so you've had to dilute the purity of essence
of your market by essentially imposing a control on polution (that forces
people to buy polution permits before they can emit CO2). Ergo, a
big problem. Markets can't work in a vacuum ...

-- Charlie