Is there anything that conservatives think WON'T benefit from the market?
September 13, 2009 12:14 AM   Subscribe

Examples of anything that conservatives DON'T think would benefit from the free market?

In the current US healthcare debate, many argue that healthcare should not be subject to free market capitalism, but should instead rely on a single payer system. Conservatives argue that the free market is the best allocator of resources, and is therefore the best way to approach healthcare for Americans.

This is obviously an oversimplification and only one facet of the debate, but it got me to thinking.

Is there anything that exists that conservatives DO NOT THINK would benefit from free market principles?

Are there examples out there of services that conservatives agree should not be subject to the market or do they believe anything and everything should be left to the unregulated free market and driven by market incentives?

I am not well versed in economic theory so please speak to me in terms a child could understand.
posted by jnnla to Law & Government (35 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The military. I've never heard anyone seriously suggest privatizing the military.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:15 AM on September 13, 2009

And yet the privatization of the military accelerated rapidly during Bush's tenure. Rumsfeld was a huge proponent of "smaller, nimbler" armed forces. The big increase in the use of mercenaries was either a direct result or a side effect, I don't know which.

So some are obviously at least fine with it, if not actively pushing for it.
posted by rokusan at 12:17 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Religion: Conservatives push for special tax-exempt status for religions instead of allowing them to compete on an even basis with other forms of entertainment.
posted by Oktober at 12:19 AM on September 13, 2009 [21 favorites]

Religion: Conservatives push for special tax-exempt status for religions instead of allowing them to compete on an even basis with other forms of entertainment.

At the risk of feeding the troll... the majority of religions have tax-exempt status because they are non-profits. And there are plenty of other, non-religious organizations that have the same status.

Furthermore, after spending 12 years in Catholic schools and 18 years of Saturday mass, religion (at least the Catholic version) is not entertaining.
posted by sbutler at 12:25 AM on September 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Zoning: Conservatives at a local level often push for zoning policies (height restrictions, mixed-use prohibitions, etc.) and preferential tax policies (mortgage deductions) that result in the crazy suburban sprawl you see in red-state metro areas like Atlanta, Houston and Dallas.

Alcohol: Conservatives are typically in support of state-owned alcohol monopoly schemes like the ABC in Virginia.

Media: Conservatives typically believe that some level of government censorship is necessary to ensure "decency" in movies and television.

I'm sure I'll think of some more in a minute.
posted by downing street memo at 12:28 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Rokusan, no one is talking about turning over operation of our SSBN's to private operation. Or selling the Minuteman's and MX's to private operating companies.

No one has suggested contracting with Blackwater to own and operate USS Nimitz.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:33 AM on September 13, 2009

Police and fire departments. I don't often hear conservative republicans arguing for privatization of these. Libertarians, yes; Republicans no.
posted by sbutler at 12:35 AM on September 13, 2009

Along those lines, I also don't hear much complaint about the FDA, FCC, FBI, CIA, or NSA... you can probably think of some more 3 letter organizations. There's disagreement over how much regulation there should be (especially with the FDA and FCC) but I think most conservatives conceed these public organizations provide a valuable service the private sector can't.
posted by sbutler at 12:40 AM on September 13, 2009

Drugs, of course - can't have a free market in recreational drug use.

Agriculture: conservatives are typically in support of agricultural subsidies that primarily benefit large agribusiness. To be fair, I think John McCain supported ending the subsidies; that's part of why he got routed in Iowa.

Defense Industry: No-bid contracts are typically fine by Republican lawmakers, and military spending is treated as an untouchable element of the federal budget.

Immigration: Conservative politicians' attitudes on immigration vary, but the base is strongly anti-immigrant; obviously a open society with a free market would allow anyone in the country.

Overall, though, this might be a bit of a red herring. Conservatives often conflate "status quo" and "free market", even if the status quo is anything but. So, conservatives might say they support the "free market" transportation solution of more and more highway spending against "inefficient" mass transit, and to support that they'll note that Amtrak and various metro systems never turn a profit. Of course, neither do highways.
posted by downing street memo at 12:40 AM on September 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

In fact, if you think of a free market as a system where anyone with a superior idea and the ability to realize it can succeed without government interference (which I think boils down "free market" pretty well), every policy conservatives support that has the effect of stratifying society on anything other than merit (tax cuts for the wealthy, no health reform, cutting education spending in urban school systems, the war on drugs) could feasibly be called anti-"free market".
posted by downing street memo at 12:46 AM on September 13, 2009

No one has suggested contracting with Blackwater to own and operate USS Nimitz.

No, but since you mention the Navy...
While reliable figures are difficult to come by and governmental accounting and monitoring of the contracts are notoriously shoddy, the US army estimates that of the $87bn earmarked this year for the broader Iraqi campaign, including central Asia and Afghanistan, one third of that, nearly $30bn, will be spent on contracts to private companies.

When America launched its invasion in March, the battleships in the Gulf were manned by US navy personnel. But alongside them sat civilians from four companies operating some of the world's most sophisticated weapons systems.

When the unmanned Predator drones, the Global Hawks, and the B-2 stealth bombers went into action, their weapons systems, too, were operated and maintained by non-military personnel working for private companies.
I think if a third of all military spending is going to private firms who bid for the work, and if the employees of those private firms are operating the weapons and killing the enemy... that's privatization. How is it anything else?
posted by rokusan at 1:12 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

(That pull quote from The Guardian back in 2003, btw. Sorry.)
posted by rokusan at 1:14 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am not a conservative myself, but there's a huge fallacy here in assuming conservatives are some huge monolith of economic thought.

Most conservatives support some degree of taxation and government spending. What they want it spent on depends on their personal priorities. The military is almost always okay. Police. Fire departments. Schools.

There are a few total-free-market supporters who really believe that everything should be privatized, everything, period. For those people, religion isn't the exception. And no, religion isn't really treated like a nonprofit; nonprofits still have to file their taxes, they just don't pay tax. Churches don't file, period, and may never be audited. For the people who drink Uncle Milty's kool-aid completely, everything should be like that. There should be no government accountability, just accountability to the market. There should be no taxes to be paid for anybody, not just churches.

But those people are a tiny, tiny minority. Mostly, in personal experience, your everyday conservative wants taxed enough to pay for the parts of government spending that actually benefit them. They just don't want to keep paying for the parts that don't.
posted by larkspur at 1:50 AM on September 13, 2009

This question betrays a lot of biases, and the answers more so.

To start off, you're conflating "conservative" with "free market principles," which is like conflating "liberal" with "socialism" (not the conservative codeword). Economic principles are often ignored for political interests on both sides.

If you're not well-versed in economic theory, an introductory econ textbook would do wonders to your understanding of the situation. Economics has a lot of results that go against common sense, and can uncover hidden costs that are not obvious. Basically, for a given open market with no externalities, a free market results in the same optimal economic allocation of resources that an omniscient government entity could obtain.

"Free market" advocates, libertarians, push for government that limits itself to ensuring contracts are fulfilled, and guaranteeing rights. Essentially just limited police and defense. Some advocate for private companies competing for these contracts.
posted by FuManchu at 1:53 AM on September 13, 2009 [7 favorites]

FuManchu has a good point: there's no chance you won't find some self-identifying conservatives who will advocate the private/free-marketization of any thing you care to name.
posted by rokusan at 2:21 AM on September 13, 2009

Highways and streets. The military. The production and regulation of currency. Universities (most believe the mix of state-owned and private ones is just fine). Things that form the infrastructure that lets the (mostly) free-market economy function with maximum efficiency. Particulary where there isn't enough stuff to divide up between private competing companies. Having three different I-95's running side-by-side isn't workable. Having multiple currencies fluctuating and collapsing within the US would make a big mess.

Schools. Few want a 100% private school system, even if public schools currently are a mess. But they favor the voucher-system so that state-run schools will have to compete against each other and, in doing so, will improve themselves (as it's in their own interest to do so).

Garbage collection (in many areas). You can have it totally run by the city, or you can have private companies bid to be the sole provider of the service to a city for a fixed term (essentially being a state-controlled monopoly). Even most die-hard libertarians accept that there is only so much space on the road for garbage trucks (space better used by trucks serving other industries), and everyone prefers that all garbage go out and get collected one morning per week. Having multiple companies competing to collect household waste at the same time would clog the scarce road space and actually hurt the economny.

Also, what FuManchu said.
posted by K.P. at 2:29 AM on September 13, 2009

Many devotees of free markets within their nation will baulk at properly freeing their market up to external competition. History is full of examples of conservative governments introducing barriers in international trade because it suits the agenda at home.

To give some recent examples, the EU has seen the supposed formation of a free market for energy trading but if you compare the introduction of this at the level of Member States then it is apparent that some governments have opened up the market pretty freely (the Uk for example, where most utilties are now not owned by UK companies) while others have freed the markets in name though still act to prevent foreing entrants (Germany) or even keep large elements effectively under state control (France).

In the international realm a nation will frequently preach free markets but will do all it can to maintain an advantage for its own companies and economy by seeking preferential treatment or exploting loopholes. The theoretical goal of organisations like the WTO and EU is to prevent this but imbalances in power mean some nations can negotiate advantageous positions or can builld in exemptions. Some example of common exemptions relate to behaviours on the grounds of the environment or national security.
posted by biffa at 3:03 AM on September 13, 2009

@sbutler: an enormous amount of the country's intel analysis work has been outsourced to private corporations. See SAIC.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 4:14 AM on September 13, 2009

As someone who lives around quite a few conservatives, I've heard the argument for free markets for most of what's been mentioned so far (shocking, but true -- even roads, schools, churches, fire departments, etc.). The only ones that I think would stand for even the most conservative people in my area are media/art/music and illegal drugs (which is illegal, and that's the argument they would make). So, in my opinion, the best argument you can make is with media/art/music.
posted by Houstonian at 5:32 AM on September 13, 2009

I had initially written a post about whether or not a free market can supply health care efficiently, but I decided that it was chatfilter so I'll give you this instead:

Microeconomics has identified whole classes of goods that a private market cannot supply a socially optimal quantity of, left to its own devices. Here's a primer. If you are still wanting more after finishing this, pick up a copy of Mankiw's "Principles of Econcomics". It is a truly excellent textbook, and certainly worthy of its popularity. These two sources will give you a much more thorough treatment of the issue than I can (especially before I finish my first cup of coffee!)

Nth the people who suggest you should be careful with your labels. Conservatism, at least as used in the US, is defined along two (often conflicting) axes: social/moral conservatism and fiscal/economic conservatism. The former is interested in preserving traditional values (however defined), the latter is interested in small government and free markets. Historically, these two groups remained distinct, as they often espoused very different policy positions. They were largely brought together under the banner of the Republican party more or less about the time of Reagan's presidency, hence the widespread confusion about what being a big-C "Conservative" really means.
posted by jtfowl0 at 5:49 AM on September 13, 2009

Thomas Frank has written a number of things on this that are pretty readable (One Market Under God) and Chomsky has a whole bit about the Nanny State which I think breaks down the central point a few mefites have alluded to: that conservatives want the free market for their competition (other countries, employees, consumers, etc), but subsidy for themselves. Hence, nanny state. If you google Chomsky Nanny State, you'll come across a bit.

But to answer quickly: nope, with the odd semi-exception of the military. Literally, not hyperbole, the pentagon has lost trillions of dollars on huge military contractors. Not millions, not billions, trillions unaccounted for. It's like an ever-filled cornucopia of money. So, they love that. But the military is changing. Jeremy Scahill has done pretty remarkable work tracking the various privatized military shenanigans going on. It's a lot bigger than most people think and there are certainly a lot of free market nuts who want it to head in that direction.

Other than that, they either want the free market to handle it, or they don't want it to happen.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:32 AM on September 13, 2009

There are private highways in the US, and new ones on the way (run by Australians).

Even most die-hard libertarians accept that there is only so much space on the road for garbage trucks (space better used by trucks serving other industries), and everyone prefers that all garbage go out and get collected one morning per week. Having multiple companies competing to collect household waste at the same time would clog the scarce road space and actually hurt the economny.

I wish. Bethlehem, PA has at least four trash haulers servicing private homes. At the same time, recycling is picked up by one company under contract with the city.
posted by djb at 8:20 AM on September 13, 2009

Mod note: few comments removed - can we not turn this into "you know what is irritating about conservatives" please? thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:32 AM on September 13, 2009

Even most die-hard libertarians accept that there is only so much space on the road for garbage trucks (space better used by trucks serving other industries), and everyone prefers that all garbage go out and get collected one morning per week. Having multiple companies competing to collect household waste at the same time would clog the scarce road space and actually hurt the economny.

Not in St. Paul, MN, either. Residential garbage collection is through private contract only.
posted by desuetude at 9:08 AM on September 13, 2009

I know this is not a forum about Libertarianism per se, but perhaps an examination of that ideology could help you with this question? Specifically, I'm thinking you might want to take The World's Smallest Political Quiz.

Basically, Libertarians argue that an individual's political beliefs can be charted on a four-quadrant grid. One axis concerns greater state control of money vs. greater individual control of money. The other axis concerns greater state control of morality vs. greater individual control of money.

Libertarians fall in the quadrant of individual control of money and individual control of morality.

I believe the "Conservatives" you are referring to are those who fall in the quadrant of individual control of money and government control of morality.

If you are prone to contrast "Liberals" with Conservatives, you might believe that Liberals are those who favor state control of money but individual control of morality.

There don't seem to be too many Authoritarians left, but you can figure out their quadrant on your own.

Keep in mind, this is a libertarian critique of politics, and many people who agree with it are likely to be libertarians themselves. Conservatives and Liberals--and of course authoritarians--have their own ideas.
posted by jefficator at 9:51 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Virtually all conservatives (and libertarians for that matter) concede that there ought to be some baseline government role for the enforcement of contracts and the protection of private property. The balance between that baseline government role and private alternatives / supplements (mandatory private arbitration, security guards, etc.) and the degree of self-help that ought to be permitted is debated, of course.
posted by MattD at 12:01 PM on September 13, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input that attempted to answer my question!

To clear a few things up, I should mention that I have read several basic economics books (I own Mankiw's book) and took econ 101 in college - thus I am familiar with the basics of economic theory but am by no means "well versed" - and no, FuManchu...this basic understanding did not do wonders to my understanding of the situation.

That being said, for the sake of avoiding indignation at the phrasing of my questions...lets take "conservatives" out of the mix and simply ask: Are there examples of things that DO NOT benefit from free market principles.

Lots of great answers thus far!
posted by jnnla at 1:01 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry! I had assumed basically zero economics background. You're too modest for Metafilter.

To get back to your real question then: True free market advocates would think that any transaction listed above can, in fact, be made better by a freer market, with the pricing in of certain externalities.

The things that this would not cover: Minimum welfare of any type. Families. The mentally ill. Any social contract that cannot be broken. The reason this doesn't work is because with such a minimum, the incentives are often ruined at the margin. The drug addicted uncle knows that he will always be supported by his family, increasing the relative utility of his next drug use. The welfare recipient with a high utility for leisure, at the margin, has a disincentive to find work.

Mind you that even Milton Friedman, who is held of as the root of all free market evil, actually supported a minimum government payment to all citizens at some fraction of the median income.

Also, Brad Delong, a Berkeley econ prof, who is about as Liberal as you can get with an Econ degree (center-left), actually supports HSAs to ensure proper free market incentives in healthcare.
posted by FuManchu at 1:40 PM on September 13, 2009

posted by k. at 2:38 PM on September 13, 2009

Depending on the kind of "conservative" you're talking about, some argue even privatizing the army by relying more on militias and private banks issuing money based on a gold or silver standard (ie 1 dollar would represent an ounce of gold or silver or platinum or whatever). Read up on the basics of the Austrian School to further understand this.

Privatized highways could be done much the same way railroads are. You're charged a toll to use them and of course there'd be duplication (isn't that what competition is?), but they'd in theory be efficiently run because of competition. They'd charge market rates that would keep traffic flowing at a decent speed.

Free market principals can go deep in a lot of arguments. You have to ask careful questions to the person presenting their views. Many people believe that the american health care system is currently "perfect" and a genuinely free market. A closer look will reveal many distortions that exist including mandating service at a specific price for medicare treatment, 20 year monopolies via patents, forcing hospitals to service people (some hospitals only collect 50 cents on the dollar for emergency room use), complex regulation, governments mandating specific items insurance companies must insure, etc.

Some even get into licensing limiting the amount of doctors available therefore driving up prices. It's currently almost impossible to take a course and specialize on a specific medical practice (say you only want to specialize on knee surgery) without having to spend tens of thousands on medical school learning about the whole human body.

I'm not saying I agree with all of this, but these are rational arguments that many libertarians use.

To further on your follow up "Are there examples of things that DO NOT benefit from free market principles" Milton Friedman scratched his head on local streets, the army, specific forms of pollution, judiciary and policing, etc. I recommend reading his book "capitalism and freedom" and/or "free to choose" which both delve into exactly what you're asking.
posted by hylaride at 4:21 PM on September 13, 2009

  • Government
  • Healthcare (specifically Veterans Affairs)
  • Police
  • Fire Department
  • Military
  • Immigation
  • Education

posted by blue_beetle at 4:24 PM on September 13, 2009

Egads! Please ignore the spelling mistakes in my last post...
posted by hylaride at 5:21 PM on September 13, 2009

If we're going to generalize, "conservatives" want the free market to handle anything they want to be free to do. They want the government to control things they don't want others to be free to do.

Contrast that to the equally generalized "liberal", who would want generally the opposite. The government should prevent people from taking undue advantage of others, anything left would be for the free market.

When you hear people rant and rave about the free market, run a sanity check on it. Usually it is code for "I make money off of this, please don't change it," or "I don't want people to make money off of something I can't."
posted by gjc at 9:57 PM on September 13, 2009

Just as there are many flavours of left-wing thought (communism, democratic socialism, etc.), there are many flavours of right-wing thought: libertarians (classical liberals, really), theocracts, monarchists, and fascists will all view this question differently. There are a few extreme libertarians that are almost right-wing anarchists and see no role of the state at all. Most will fall along the classical liberal line of no state role except for the enforcement of contracts, national defense, and perhaps a few other minimal things.

Even your second question, "lets take "conservatives" out of the mix and simply ask: Are there examples of things that DO NOT benefit from free market principles?" is going elicit a lot of contradictory answers. This is pretty much the fundamental question that most modern political ideologies seek to answer, and will answer differently. As a social democrat, myself, I could list a great number of things that I feel do not *generally* benefit from free market principles (but even those will be context/time/place-specific to what I percieve as a market failure in the form of unacceptable human and/or environmental results of the market). Social democrats see legitimate role(s) for the activist state in society and do not see it as either oppressive (as classical liberals often do), or as an agent of capitalism that will wither away after the destruction of the capitalist market (as a communist would). So there's really no universal to this.

That said, while I had serious problems with one particular chapter within it (not worth getting into here) and I do not like the simplistic use of political labels, I nevertheless recommend Joseph Heath's Filthy Lucre as a good start to political economy. He's organized it around several fallacies of (some) popular contemporary right-wing thought and (some) popular contemporary left-wing thought, and it may shed the sort of light you're looking for on this question.
posted by Kurichina at 8:49 AM on September 14, 2009

Workplace safety. While you'll find a few die-hard libertarians making the "if your workplace is unsafe, quit and find a job elsewhere" argument, I think most conservatives would agree that the government has a legitimate role in enforcing a certain level of workplace safety among employers. Exactly how much regulation is appropriate may be a matter of debate, but they accept the basic principle.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:04 AM on September 16, 2009

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