Brad DeLong (a huge fan of Savage Minds) has posted a review of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, in which he castigates Scott for not more openly acknowledging his intellectual debt to the Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Crooked Timber’s Henry Farrell has replied by pointing out that markets require real trade-offs and “we should acknowledge the costs of markets” even as we tout their benefits. While I applaud Henry for cautiously pointing out the costs of markets, I think that both he and Brad both underestimate the extent to which Scott is correct when he states:
the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity
A good example is the recent failed attempt by aid organizations to employ markets to distribute much-needed mosquito nets:
In doing so, Dr. Kochi turned his back on an alternative long favored by the Clinton and Bush administrations — distribution by so-called social marketing, in which mosquito nets are sold through local shops at low, subsidized prices — $1 or so for an insecticide-impregnated net that costs $5 to $7 from the maker — with donors underwriting the losses and paying consultants to come up with brand names and advertise the nets.
When Kenya started giving nets away for free instead of charging for them coverage increased dramatically and the “deaths of children dropped 44 percent.”
Both David Harvey’s book, A Brief History of Neoliberism, and Naomi Klein’s new book The Shock Doctrine discuss numerous cases where the (often forced) imposition of markets have had disastrous consequences. Perhaps not as disastrous as some of the famines discussed in Scott, but still pretty bad. Like the examples in Scott’s book, these free-market ideologues like to make use of political instability in order to conduct their social experiments. Case in point, Iraq, where the first order of business by Paul Bremer was to privatize Iraqi business and lift trade barriers. (As well as dismantling the trade unions, one of the more important pillars of Iraqi civil society.)
Below is a video for Naomi Klein’s book made by Children of Men director, Alfonso Cuarón. While I haven’t read her book yet, it seems as if it popularizes many of the arguments found in similar books by Harvey, Stiglitz and others. For a more thorough filmic treatment of these themes, I highly recommend Stephanie Black’s Life and Debt.