Markets marketed better

What do you call a system where costs and benefits return to those who cause them? Working markets or karma, depending on whether the accounting uses money or magic.

In popular culture karma generally has good connotations, and markets generally have bad. Reasons for unease about markets should mostly apply just as well to karma, but nobody complains for instance that inherent tendencies to be nice are an unfair basis for wellbeing distribution. Nor that people who have had a lot of good fortune recently might have cheated the system somehow. Nor that the divine internalizing of externalities encourages selfishness. Nor that people who are good out of desperation for fair fortune are being exploited. So why the difference?

Perhaps mysterious forces are just more trustworthy than social institutions? Or perhaps karma seems nice because its promotion is read as ‘everyone will get what they deserve’, while markets seem nasty because their promotion is read as ‘everyone deserves what they’ve got’. Better ideas?

12 responses to “Markets marketed better

  1. With magic i.e. karma, people tend to explain away any inconvenient technicalities by saying, “Oh, it just doesn’t work that way.” With non-magic, this type of discounting is not possible.

  2. Yes, I’m with anonymous. That was my immediate reaction.

    Infinite rationalization and ‘making up the story as you go along’ is possible with karma because it’s not a very specified model.

  3. Most aversion to markets doesn’t appear to be based on any more empirical analysis or specified model. Finding out what actually goes on in the complicated network of production and distribution of even one item is ridiculously hard as far as I can tell. So complaints don’t mostly arise from inconvenient technicalities, but rather from their own vague models. Why do essentially the same vague models lead people to search for good or bad features?

  4. If people really lived in a magical world they’d have lots of things to complain about. If markets were only imaginary they’d have lots more fans.

  5. mitchell porter

    “So why the difference?”

    Karma is a law of nature and so complaining about it is futile.

  6. I doubt most opponents of markets’ vague models are much like “a system where costs and benefits return to those who cause them” — closer to “X win at everyone else’s expense”, where X = the already-rich, the greedy, some other race, etc.

  7. Markets are obviously imperfect. (Did Bill Gates *truly* create net wealth for the world, much less $90 billion worth? Warren Buffet? If Madoff had died at a quite probable age before being found out, wouldn’t your market-karma have spectacularly failed?)

    Karma, being magical or religious, can be postulated to be perfect. Given that people don’t have any problem with magical/religious concepts, obviously a perfect thing is to be preferred to an imperfect one.

  8. People use stories to organize their world and market forces aren’t a story at all, more like weather. Conspiracy theories are even better stories, which explains their staying power.

  9. >Why do essentially the same vague models lead people to search for good or bad features?

    When bad things happen, people blame real models. But with magical models, they look for an explanation.

  10. Pingback: Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 08/31/2009

  11. There is no doubt that the market exists, but there is doubt whether karma occurs. Even most people who think there is some karma in the world don’t believe karma applies 100%. When things go wrong, a market oriented person can’t deny it was the market; but when things go wrong for a karma-lover, they can say the karma system doesn’t apply there or we just haven’t seen how it’s going to work (how you are born in a future life is probably a rationalisation of the clear injustices now).

    • I thought it was the other way around; working markets aren’t ubiquitous and ills can usually be attributed to other things (what was the last problem you heard of which was due to a competitive market?) whereas karma applies in outer space.


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