Political Conflict Isn’t About Free Markets

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I’ve been waiting for about a week for an example to make this point, but couldn’t think of one, and along rides Tim Lee to the rescue:

To see why [right-of-center hostility to unlicensed spectrum] is wrong, it’s worth thinking about the debate over carbon emissions. In a sense, this is also a debate over scarcity. One side favors treating the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon as a commons (Jerry [Brito] would probably call it an “open access” regime, but I use the “common” terminology), allowing anyone to emit carbon dioxide without legal restrictions. The other side believes that this will lead to a tragedy of the commons, and so they favor a property-rights-oriented approach. The weird thing is that the left and right in the carbon debate are on the opposite sides from the positions they occupy in the spectrum debate. In the spectrum debate, a commons is considered a “left-wing” position, while property rights are considered “right-wing.” In contrast, in the carbon debate you find right-wingers advocating a “carbon commons” while left-wingers advocate a property-like regime called cap and trade.

I think this is very insightful. Where it goes wrong, though, is in concluding that there’s something “weird” about this inversion. I think if you look at political conflict you’ll see that attitudes toward property rights are really all over the map. I like the idea of allowing people to build more densely, which would be a form of strengthening property rights, whereas Cato’s Randal O’Toole doesn’t like this idea at all. The main difference between left and right with regard to property rights is simply that the right is invested in a lot of rhetoric about markets and property rights and the left is invested in different historical and rhetorical tropes.

To borrow an idea from Robin Hanson, I think it’s useful to think about political conflict in terms of valorized figures. On the right, you see a lot of valorization of businessmen. On the left, you see a lot of valorization of pushy activists who want to do something businessmen don’t like. Formally, the right is committed to ideas about free markets and the left is committed to ideas about economic equality. But in practice, political conflict much more commonly breaks down around “some stuff some businessmen want to do” vs “some stuff businessmen hate” rather than anything about markets or property rights per se. Consequently, on the left people sometimes fall into the trap of being patsies for rent-seeking mom & pop operators when poor people would benefit more from competition from a corporate bohemoth.

Or iff you look at the energy sector, you’ll see that businessmen want to push property rights for the stuff that’s in the ground (coal, oil, whatever) and a commons model for the stuff (particulates, CO2) that’s in the air. You can call that “inconsistent” if you like, but obviously it’s perfectly consistent with what coal and oil executives want! And those industries are the most loyal supporters of “right” politics around.