In defence of market transactions

17/10/2012 § Leave a comment

My last post was about switching from buses to the car for getting to work. It has generated discussion (and thanks, everyone, for stopping by and contributing) and given me food for thought.

Specifically, how do we know that a bus service is good or bad?

One perspective is that I (well, we, really — it’s a joint family decision) have chosen to live in a certain place because of its amenity values. These same characteristics — distance from city, low housing density, proximity of a wildlife sanctuary — make the provision of public transport difficult. It is, essentially, my fault that I don’t have good bus service. I’ve done this to myself.

I think this point of view is driven by a kind of ‘epistemic closure’, using the term in its political sense. In this sense, new facts or information can have no impact of knowledge. Knowledge is already known. Information is judged by whether it fits what is known, rather than knowledge being informed by information.

Carry this over to public transport. Proponents ‘know’ that buses are good. The Wellington bus system is therefore already good. Its goodness is inherent in its publicness and transportness.

I come along and say, well, it doesn’t work for me, and here’s why. This statement is not received as a new piece of information that can allow the company to update the bus system. Instead, it becomes a judgement about me and how I live. A good life would be one lived in such a way that the already-good bus system is appropriate; the fact that it doesn’t work for me just measures how far I have fallen.

What does this have to do with market transactions?

Epistemic closure only works if there are no repercussion from being wrong, if you can ignore data and information and still get by. If your job depends on the bus system being funded, and the funding comes through a political process in which you have to convince other people, and everyone in the process ‘knows’ the inherent goodness of public transport, then it is a closed process. It doesn’t matter how well the bus system works — it is inherently worth funding.

Market transactions create an open system in which you have to take other peoples’ opinions into account. It is no good ‘knowing’ that you have a great product; it is no good protesting that people should live in such a way that your product works for them. If you aren’t actually selling it, you don’t have an income. Eventually, you will have to give up. Those scarce resources that you have been tying up will be available for something more beneficial to society.

Before you jump all over me, yes, I know about market failure and the problems of infrastructure. Nevertheless, market transactions between willing buyers and sellers (and the lack thereof) tend to be a nifty way of working our way to (groping towards!) an efficient use of resources. Whenever possible, we should be using the information they provide.

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