Friday, August 19, 2016

Metaphysical Bumblings #3: Markets

I'm probably not the best person to 'do' philosophy, as I don't think I function in a particularly logically-driven fashion.  When I read most modern stuff (and, frankly, when I read most anything in terms of the kinds of things you see in fairly intelligent writings) very quickly I start to hear that voice in my head from the Peanuts cartoons -- that nasally 'wah wah, whah wha wah, wha....' that the adults speak in. usually glazes my eyes over and puts me to sleep.

Sorry, I just don't find 98% of it very convincing.  I can force myself to follow it, but it is almost always a waste of time, as I generally find that when I understand it, it is either trivial, repulsive, or wrong, and that 'style' of thinking seems to have this take-it-or-leave-it aspect to it that almost always means leaving it.  For me, anyway.  

I think in pictures -- if you want to convince me, invite me into your picture of things, and let me inspect the truth of it for myself.  I might take all of it, or some of it, or maybe only a little of it, but I almost never find that sort of writing to be totally without value.  I will almost always come away with something.

That's what I'd like to do here -- sketch out a few pictures of things, and see if there isn't some truth to be had.  Let's do some 'metaphysics of markets.'

First things, though -- I want to do something weird, and to do it, I need to do some clearing up of what seems to me some muddying that surrounds the ideas of 'subjective' and 'objective.'  I hope you'll bear with me, but in my opinion, the ways these two words are used is 90% wrong.

If you don't agree -- and you probably won't, at least at first -- that's okay.  You can keep your opinion.  I'm just sketching a picture here; I need this as an element, and once I'm done, you can go back to the way you've always done things if you don't find it useful to you.  But you probably won't be able to 'see' my picture if you don't first step into a different picture of these two terms.

Mere Objectivity

What I want to do -- and the reason most people won't like this -- is 'relativise' the meanings of objective and subjective.  However, I promise that if you stick around to the end, you'll get something else to anchor yourself that you might like better.  And as I said, you can always anchor yourself back to these terms if you don't like what I'm going to show you.

The reason I think you should consider 'relativising' the words objective and subjective is just because they are relative terms.  I've even heard that Eric Voegelin once instructed his students to simply stop using them because they do not correspond to anything in reality.  I do not think I would go that far, because I think they are useful in their place, nevertheless, I would agree with him that they are generally abused and therefore often unhelpful or downright misleading.

We usually like to think of rendering something like an 'objective' opinion or judgment, or giving 'objective' evidence, to mean something like 'true' evidence, or an 'impartial' opinion, or what have you.  But I have to use words like 'true', and 'just', and 'universal', and 'absolute' and other such notions and connotations we commonly attach to the word objective precisely because mere objectivity proper cannot render them on it's own.  Surely an opinion is more likely to be just if it is rendered objectively, but simply because one is 'outside' a situation (and therefore objective to it) does not render his opinion just.  Merely objective evidence is often wrong, misleading and all the rest, otherwise it would be enough to get at the truth simply to be objective.  Objectivity is certainly something, but it doesn't in itself render 'the whole enchilada.'  You need more to the system to get all of that -- like logic and consistency, veracity to actuality, etc.  Likewise for subjectivity.

So, at least for the moment, let's only use the words objective and subjective to mean, basically, whether we are viewing something from outside or inside a particular 'frame' at hand, and use the other sorts of words we have to mean those other things if we need them.  For the moment, we are only using the words to consider how the situation is framed.

With that annoying stuff out of the way, let's draw a couple of pictures.

Market Picture #1

Suppose that I took a map of reality -- a nice 2D picture with you in it -- and I drew a circle around just you.  You are inside of this circle (subjective frame of reference) with everything else outside of it (objective frame).  This, as it happens, is a pretty common way of thinking about things, for hopefully obvious reasons.

And if you think about markets in these terms, you can really go a long ways.  One interesting thing you may notice -- and one of the most important discoveries of economics as a science -- is that value is subjective.  It emerges from within market actors (like you).  (Yes, okay, we'll afford the other market actors their own circles, too.  I'm trying to keep it simple here.  They also impute value 'subjectively.')  People value goods, and this is what renders them valuable in markets.

Likewise, you will discover that prices are objective.  You can look at an ad in the newspaper, and you will see there prices that are indifferent to what you think of them.  You can consider them outrageous, you can consider them 'cheap.'  But whatever they are, they just are.  The numbers on the paper don't change depending on your opinion of them.

Do they emerge out of the physical laws of the universe?  Or some such?  No.  They emerge out of the decisions made by marginal actors in markets -- the ones making immediate decisions to buy or sell at a particular price at a particular moment in time.  Sometimes that marginal actor might be you, but most of the time not.  And even then, you really only get half a say -- it takes two to tango. 

Which is to say, that despite your very occasional participation, and despite being the outcome of the objectively visible actions of many individual actors, prices are nevertheless objective phenomena using our frame of reference.  They are 'brute facts of your Universe', as far as you are concerned.  Your 'say' in them reduces to a rounding error.  You just have to deal with them, as they are.

And hopefully it is equally crystal clear that they are -- nevertheless, nevertheless! -- the product of subjective valuations!  Time for some bold, large font --

Price structures are the outcome of value structures, via market mechanisms.  The objective structure of a market is a product of subjective values.

...and that's kinda important, especially to the actors who have to navigate those structures.

What I've sketched out here is the basics of Economic Subjectivism, one of the most critical insights of the subject of economics.  It was originally articulated by the Austrian school, but eventually absorbed by pretty much every modern school of economic thought.  I'm not gonna dwell on any more of the details within this picture much more than this, because lots of others already have much better than I could, it's pretty conventional, and I don't have a lot more to say about it as regards the point of his essay.

But to be sure, this is one doozy of a metaphysical system we have sketched out.  This way of dividing up reality will get you a lot.  You can see a long way from this mountaintop.  An awful lot of what is known of economic systems derives from this treatment of things.  And, I would submit, its effectiveness emerges for a very good reason -- because dividing things this way -- they way we drew our 'circle' -- captures a very important truth of the situation.  Individuality is an important aspect of reality, so 'breaking it at this joint' gives good results.

Metaphysical Skepticism

However (you knew there was going to be a 'however', didn't you?) when I have run across systems like this, I have come to find it good practice to ask two questions -- and I would encourage everyone who comes across some new train of reasoning or body of facts ("Evolution!  It's so amazing -- it explains everything!  Just like this --!") that is being put to use to make sweeping statements about all of reality ("Therefore, obviously, there's no God.") to make use of them.

Question 1 -- So what?  As in, does this thing really imply all of that?  Are you sure?  Do I have to take it just this way, all the way to the ends of reality?  Or are the implications really more limited than all that?

Question 2 -- What else?  As in, is this all there is?  The whole story?  Might there be more -- especially more that might bear a bit more directly on questions that seem further removed from the original issues that led to this train of thought?

In the case at hand, what we learned emerged out of a way of dividing up reality -- one way among many we could have chosen -- and the result turned out to be pretty darn good.  But just what all should we conclude from it -- i.e., so what?  Well, a lot, but maybe not everything.  We definitely should not conclude that 'this is it' without any further inspection.  We didn't bother (yet!) to divide it up some other way and see if something useful might shake out.

Is there anything else? My tendency is to almost always answer this question one way -- there is almost always more!  Reality is a big and wondrous place.  I don't think that needs a lot of elaboration.

Let's see if we can find more.  How about another picture?

Market Picture #2

This time, we're going to draw the circle in a different place -- instead of around individual people, around a group of people.  We'll pick the one that's getting the most attention of late -- a nation of people.  You could probably draw a circle around other groups and arrive at useful conclusions, but for now we'll stick with this one of interest.

Now, a lot of people who support free-trade will talk about 'invisible lines' or 'imaginary lines', to ridicule the idea of the meaningfulness of national borders and such.  And if we had bought in too deeply into the metaphysics from before -- that our way of dividing up reality was not merely a useful way for yielding truthful insight, reflective of truth, but in fact necessarily the whole truth of the matter -- we might be pulled in.  But hopefully, by getting as far as we have in the way that we have, it is easy to see that this characterization carries not much weight -- of course the line is 'imaginary', so was the one that we drew around individuals!  The whole point of drawing it was to imagine, to see if we found any truth in it, and the exercise proved very useful indeed!  If the objections is, 'well of course, that's not really what I meant, I meant it doesn't correspond to anything 'real', in the way an individual is 'real',' well, then I will say at least this begins to get to the heart of the matter.

And honestly, I wish the debates on the matter would go this way, instead of the way they usually go -- each side making fun of the other, without taking the debate to the actual issue at hand.  Are groups real, or not?  Because that is the issue, and no other.  And as with our previous example, I would submit that if they are real, then we should immediately see that applying this metaphysical divide will yield us some useful insight. And since I am not very good at this sort of reasoning and this section is devolving into the sort of writing that I don't like, rather than run around and around with this, let's finish off the 'drawing' and see what the picture looks like.

I think it is a very useful picture indeed.  With the circle drawn around nations, the pattern one immediately notices is that the price structure is typically fairly different within one circle as compared to outside of it.  In fact, a lot of things are different.  If our inferences hold from the previous 'drawing,' this is the result of differing value structures -- that just happen to line up with the circles we drew.  Clearly, there appears to be an underlying reality to the circle.  Some would say that, well, it's the legal sanctions imposed at the border that causes the difference, and to a degree this is partially true, but even when borders were far looser than today and where they have had much less legal significance, there were still differences -- and further there are price structure differences within borders where there is no substantial legal differentiation between regions.  Think -- one city versus another in the same state, or a city versus the countryside.

Of more significance, I think, is that in this picture, to the degree that prices differ, pricing is subjective!  The differences emerge from within the confines of the circle -- subjective to our delineation -- presumably in response to local economic conditions, as an expression of local valuations.  External conditions impinge only so far, even in the absence of any sort of purely legal differentiation.  If we were to modify the large, bold statement we made earlier, we'd have to say further that price and value structures emerge from 'the' subjective valuations 'of the members of the system in question.'  Not purely and abstractly from 'subjective valuation,' which is a bit different.  Presumably you care about the values of the people around you that you live with and do business with.  Their opinions are not wholly 'subjective' -- in the former, abused sense -- and arbitrary to you, as the previous formulation might seem to imply.

So -- 'real' or not, groups at least matter.  And to the degree they matter, well, to me at least they would seem to be 'real'.  And I don't want to run to the clincher just yet, but generally, there is a rather wise conservative proverb concerning theories that ignore significant realities...

How about valuations?  This, I think, can get either very murky...or very trivial...or very interesting.

At first glance, they are clearly subjective, because they also emerge locally from within the circle.  Or, if you want to import more of the previous metaphysics, from within the individuals who are within the circle.  And, as you probably intoned from the discussion so far, there is a significance to this -- different groups possess and express different value structures, and in turn will produce different price structures and consequently different economic structures. How could it be otherwise?

Likewise, from within any particular circle, both prices and values outside the circle are objective, emerging from outside.  There are 'your' values and structures and ways, and then there are 'the world's.'  You could also have done this from the previous metaphysics (and probably seen some truth in a 'you versus the world' perspective, but hopefully you don't feel quite that isolated!)

But suppose we ask of our picture this -- ok, so the value structures, as expressed in markets, come from groups of people.  But where do the groups and the people get them?  Do they really emerge 'just' from within them?

And for whatever reason, when you ask a question like this almost everyone will default to a materialist perspective, and say 'well, of course!  Where else would they come from?'  Which I guess is fine if you actually are a materialist, but since most people would say that they are not, that they belong to some religion or other that believes in 'spiritual' things, or otherwise believes in the 'immaterial,' this is kind of an inadequate answer.  And I suspect that even most of the materialists don't really believe what they are saying, if they really think about it.

As I pointed out in another post, most people will say that they at least nominally belong to one transcendent religion or another, so they probably ought to think that some portion of their beliefs and values are not merely subjective opinions but are given them from 'outside' -- that as individuals or as a group of faithful believers, they give expression to transcendent, eternal values which could be said to be objective to the entirety of the material universe, coming as they do from beyond it.

And if you say this is what you believe -- that it is a part of your metaphysics -- then why on earth is it not just habitually a part of your 'picture' of things?

As regards the picture we are presently drawing -- if we believe these sorts of things, then as 'beings made in the image of God', or however this idea is formulated by other religions, we can act as 'metaphysical conduits' through whatever circle we choose to draw to that which is 'truly objective'. There simply is no adequate 'firewall' to a transcendent God. And so -- in an important sense -- we could say that the values, prices, structures, etc, in our circle are our attempt at the expression of something much higher than our own subjective tastes, objective in the sense that really matters -- the ultimate sense. Therefore these things must take on something other than being 'merely subjective,' at least if we are to take our beliefs and ourselves seriously.

Have I shot through the metaphysical picture well enough?

Anyway, the picture that emerges is sets of value structures expressed by individuals and groups of people, occasionally, and unfortunately, sometimes even arrayed against eachother (i.e., in conflict).  And, frankly, the way these structures get to maintain their identity and integrity -- the way that people and groups get to live out their values -- is through borders.  Period.  Without any reality to the imaginary lines, they don't exist anymore, and the temporal becomes the tyrannical.  So, regardless of what I might think (or not think) about policy, or governments, or what any of these values should or should not be, it seems to be at the very least folly in my eyes to deny the reality and necessity of national borders -- provided there be such a thing as a nation.  And probably much worse than folly.

I suppose you could take this picture a lot of directions, but I will just say a bit more -- it seems to me you could draw a great number of these circles in meaningful ways -- around family lineages (especially concerning the issue of inheritance, which seems to have completely gone to the dogs), around families themselves, around neighborhoods and communities, etc.  Without representation of these realities in the here and now -- without borders -- well, you can expect them to have about as much reality in truth as the representation afforded them.  When you open your borders up, you invite in external values.  And since the world is bigger than you, and probably also your group, you'll likely be overwhelmed.

People need to allow for this...somehow.  If you buy into this picture anyway...

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