Market Solutions for Me but Not for Thee

I was listening to Left, Right and Center on NPR today and had the pleasure of listening to David Frum intone how the only workable answer to climate change lay not in regulation but in “market solutions.”

Ironically enough, this puts Frum (as usual) on the left of the Republican spectrum, since he sees fit to acknowledge that climate change not only exists, but is enough of a problem to demand an answer of any kind. Frum’s preferred solution involves carbon pricing, using what he calls “the power of price” to effectuate change in the marketplace.

To be fair, market solutions aren’t just a conservative feature: they’re favored by neoliberals and even often by progressives under the right circumstances.

But it’s curious to hear Republicans like David Frum pontificate about how market solutions are always superior to regulatory ones, because they don’t actually believe this is true when it comes to social policy or private property protection.

The conservative approach to prostitution isn’t to put a price on the sex trade, but rather to attempt to regulate it out of existence. The conservative approach to drugs isn’t to set a market mechanism in place, but rather to regulate it away with a “war on drugs.” Obviously, conservatives don’t try to create market mechanisms to deal with theft or murder: it seems perfectly obvious and acceptable to make laws against those things and hire police to enforce them.

So why is it that when it comes to issues like pollution, climate change or corporate misbehavior, regulatory solutions enforced by police and the threat of jail time are suddenly seen an ineffectual versus “market solutions?” Could it be because when individuals want to have fun they need to be threatened with severe punishment and loss of freedom, but when corporations want to damage society and the environment they should be able to barter on the marketplace instead?

That’s a pretty nifty double standard, no?

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.