What To Trust: The Market Or Body Politic?

December 28, 2009|By Tom Moriarty

We thought we were so smart, the day our democracy was born. Finally, we had a system of government that looked to the people - to ourselves - for reasons we should do one thing and not another. Reasons we should vote for one candidate and not the other. Reasons why we should stay home or go to war, protect the rich or help the poor.

The ancient Greeks had a word for what we made: They called it the polis, the body politic, the public space where we can figure out what we should do and why we should do it, where we should go and how we might get there, who we should know and who might lead us. The space where we can thrive, where we can live and where we can care for or hurt one another.

But the polis deteriorated over the years, and today it is a noisy and unruly space, an expansive and open forum of ideas both wise and considered, half-witted and half-baked. It is Fox News and CNBC, right-wing radio and left-wing conspiracy theory, irascible and irreducible to anything resembling common ground. It is poly-vocal and polytheist, many voices drowned out by many more, all proclaiming the truth of the matter as revealed only to them.

So we look elsewhere for reasons why we should enact one policy and not another, why we should support one candidate and not the other. We look to the market, that other great forum of human activity, the space where we meet to exchange goods and services, to buy and sell what we make and what we know, all to the highest bidder. It, too, is a noisy and unruly scrum, but its machinations, ruminations and daily fluctuations are reducible to something more elegant, something more logical and pure.

The market is rational and can be boiled down to mathematical models and leading indicators, complex amalgamations of so many choices, so much supply and demand, millions of little decisions to buy or sell, save or spend. So simple, really, in the abstract; so elegant in its precision.

We look to the market because the polis has become so ugly, so unmanageable and so unreliable. The last time we relied solely on the polis to make a decision, we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We got it right with Afghanistan - we were punched in the face by al-Qaeda and its Taliban friends, and we had to punch back, regardless of the costs - but we got it so very wrong with Iraq. Misinformed by rumors and suspicion, dubious facts and fanciful fictions, we convinced ourselves that somehow, some way, Saddam Hussein must have been involved, or was cooking up an even more dangerous plot of his own.

The market is different. Informed by data, numbers, logical dictums and other forms of rational nonfiction, the market is immune to misguided decisions. Or so we like to think. For the market, too, is susceptible to rumors and suspicion, flights of fancy and self-delusion.

The last time we relied solely on the market to make a decision, we fell into a great recession, the likes of which we haven't seen since the 1930s. Misinformed by experts and speculators, dubious brokers and buttoned-down regulators, we convinced ourselves that housing prices would go up and up forever, never mind the lessons of history or the iron law of economic gravity.

And yet we increasingly look to the market for "reasons why." Reasons why we should bail out the banks but not the homeowners. Reasons why the wealthy should have health insurance but not the poor.

We've come to distrust the polis, and rightly so, with its nonstop blather and inane obsessions with fleeting celebrity and useless possessions. But the polis has something the market does not: a heart and a soul, as well as endless possibilities when it comes to reasons why.

Ask the market why we should do one thing and not another and the answer is always the same: We should do it because it's cheaper, or because it will make us the most money.

Ask the polis, and the answer can change.

Tom Moriarty teaches writing and rhetoric at Salisbury University. His e-mail is tamoriarty@salisbury.edu.

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