The Best at What They Do

..but what they do aint necessarily pretty.

..but what they do ain't necessarily pretty.

Like Wolverine market economies are the best at what they do, but what they do ain’t necessarily pretty. Got a bunch of grain to distribute? A market economy will make sure that that grain gets distributed efficiently and without political bias to people consider it valuable. From a purely functional perspective, it’s quite possibly the Best Way to distribute grain. What markets do (and do very well) is efficiently distribute ownable goods and services. This has two big implications:

1) If you can’t really own it, it doesn’t belong in a market. It’s pretty clear what it means to own a sack of grain, a parcel of land or a service contract. It’s less clear what it means to own, say, the ability of the oceans to replenish fish stocks, or the ability of an education system to contribute to a flourishing society.  Because these things can’t really be owned, it’s unclear what it means to buy them and it’s very hard for market mechanisms to give them a good price. You can always scour ecosystems and social systems for things that AREownable (ie , the right to harvest fish). That’s a great way to control how the market interacts with the global ecosystem, but it’s not enough to keep that ecosystem maintained.

2) If you don’t care about distributing it efficiently, it doesn’t belong in a market. We could have a free market for physical violence, and we don’t. Corporations and the extremely wealthy could hire private security forces to enforce whatever laws they saw fit, and the ability to violence would probably be created and distributed a lot more efficiently than it is now. We don’t have a market for physical violence because efficient distribution isn’t really a top priority. By distributingthe ability to do violence through national armies and regional police forces we can ensure that that ability is used for our collective benefit and minimize the amount of actual violence that takes place. We’ve learned frommillenia of experience that violence is best distributed through a rigid, publicly accountable command structure. When that command structure interacts with the market (buying badges and cosmetics and whatnot) it worries about prices, but it doesn’t run itself on them.

Both of these points need to be taken into account when thinking about ecosystem services. If we manage our ecosystem with the market we’ll wind up distributing it efficiently, but that may not be what we want. We need to find a nonmarket system, like the army’s rigid command structure or science’s free exchange of ideas, which allows our ecosystem and its services to flourish. When that nonmarket system interacts with the market (say, when commercial fish trawlers head out to sea) it may make sense to put a price on things, but often times it won’t. (We won’t control sexual harassment by putting a price on it and distributing it in a market.)

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