Blessed Anonymity

15 June 2011 at 9:45 am 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Critics of the market, from Marx and Karl Polanyi to Alasdair MacIntyre, John Gray, Robert Putnam, and some contemporary sociologists, decry the anonymity of commercial relations. Strong, local, community ties, they complain, are being displaced by long-distance, ad hoc, impersonal, weak ties. “Increasingly,” writes anthropologist Stephen Gudeman, “we commoditize things, leisure, body parts, reproductive capacities, DNA, and social relationships. As people flock to cities, sell their hardwood trees, change clothing styles, and watch television, community . . . shrinks.” (Thanks to Virgil Storr for this and many other good references.)

One response is to invoke Mises’s idea that social cooperation under the division of labor is actually the foundation of community. “The fundamental facts that brought about cooperation, society, and civilization . . . are the facts that work performed under the division of labor is more productive than isolated work and that man’s reason is capable of recognizing this truth” (Human Action, p. 144). Writers like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams argue, for example, that the growth of the market stymies racism and other forms of prejudice.

Last week’s Economist had an interesting piece on supermarkets that brought these arguments to light:

The nostalgics don’t even have their history right. A big research project at the universities of Surrey and Exeter is currently studying shopping in post-war England. For one thing, high streets were not as quaint as politicians think. As far back as 1939, chain stores and co-operative (ie, mutual) retail societies already controlled about half of the grocery market. It was middle class matrons, the sort who dressed up to go shopping, who missed the deference shown by traditional grocers. Supermarkets were often welcomed by younger and working-class women. A retired secretary interviewed by the project recalled, as a young bride, asking the butcher for a tiny amount of mince. “Oh, having a dinner party, madam?” he sneered. A woman who bought anything expensive or unusual risked disapproving gossip, spread by shop assistants. The project found press advertisements promoting the anonymity of supermarkets, as well as their convenience.

Some of you will remember a scene from Woody Allen’s Bananas, which also illustrates this point nicely.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Classical Liberalism, Myths and Realities, Public Policy / Political Economy.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard Ebeling  |  15 June 2011 at 1:22 pm

    One of the advantages of the market order is precisely that degrees of anonymity and intimacy with others is more under the discretion of the individual.

    Unlike the image of traditional society, under which one’s social status and relationships with others are mostly the accident of birth and circumstance — the society of “status” — in the market society one’s social positions and relationships are far more a reflection of the conscious choice and decisions of the individual — the society of “contract.”

    The supermarket example is a apt one. Each person fills his/her own shopping cart with what they, respectively, desire and goes to the check-out counter. Each shopper pulls off the shelf the goods that he/she desires and wants, with no one looking over their shoulder and making value judgments about their value judgments.

    And at the same time, as buyers we give no thought, interest or concern as to the “life-styles,” interests or philosophical, religious, or political value judgments of those who have manufactured and supplied the multitude of goods we purchase. Both buyers and sellers have anonymity.

    We form associations, friendships, “common causes” in a variety of social networks and relationships that frequently do not overlap. A person may go to a particular church on Sunday, his chess club on Monday, and his book appreciation reading group on Thursday. And the respective fellow members in each may have nothing to do with the people in the other groups.

    This is, of course, an essential element in the idea of “civil society.” We, each, live in “multiple worlds,” with each of those worlds representing different aspects and interests of our lives. We are not homogenized and reduced to one social “class,” with its assigned set of defining characteristics and inform social policing.

    It is liberation, it is freedom, from that social tyranny of tradition and custom, about which John Stuart Mill spoke in “On Liberty.”

    Richard Ebeling

  • 2. Michael Marotta  |  15 June 2011 at 9:05 pm

    What Ebeling said.

    Allow me to add that FrankLloyd Wright designed houses with their backs to the street. Civilization, according to him, is the right to privacy.

    Anonymity in the market depends on trust. In a previous incarnation, Prof. Newt Gingrich said that you pick up the phone, give your credit card number to someone you never met, and you show up at the airport and actually expect a ticket to be there.

    That does not depend on your niece marrying their nephew. Affine relationships are irrelevant to the impersonal marketplace.

    However we do establish relationships – though not the marrying kind – when we use discount coupons and otherwise engage sellers. We – not they – control the interaction.

    Moreover, here on O&M, as in many other places, we have a community at a distance. It is common to our global electronic culture to have relationships with people whom we know only by their log-ins. That is only an extension of the market.

    Thus, overall, the complaint that the market is anonymous fails on many levels. First, agoric interactions are not anonymous; and second, where they are, that works to the advantage of the less empowered. Third, it is not clear which traditional (tribal) relationship are the essential ones (marriage? fealty?). Fourth, is is not shown that no interactions should be anonymous, i.e., that you should have no right to privacy.

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