Saturday, October 12, 2013

Economic Nihilism

As promised in the first post on nihilism and socialism, I am going to elaborate on what comes to mind when I use the term 'economic nihilism'. I am not using it to describe a complete lack of economic interaction, simply a situation where no value is ascribed to any distribution of economic power, and typically where patterned distributions are ascribed a negative value.

In this context a patterned distribution is basically any doctrine that prescribes how much or how little economic power any individual can hold. So in a system without anything like this where no inherent value (positive or negative) is given to distributions, there is nothing one could say against a situation where one individual has 1000 times as much power and wealth as another, or if a small group of individuals collectively held more power than the rest of society as a whole. There is nothing just or unjust, good or bad, right or wrong with this scenario, it simply is.

People who advocate such systems tend to actually go further than this. Rather than just have a valueless distribution they place value on the lack of patternicity. It is the system of complete economic self-determination, or "economic freedom" as they would describe it, that has value and not the outcomes of such a prescription. As I argued in my post Nihilism and Socialism, this concept of 'economic freedom' is misleading at best, as actual freedoms in such a system are completely contingent on possessing wealth and power.

I think it is more than a little hypocritical for people who advocate such an economic system—which in other circles might be called full neoliberalism, laissez faire capitalism, anarcho-capitalism or the awful misnomer libertarianism—to go on to make ethical judgements about the consequences that arise from a system of economic nihilism. If the concentration of wealth and power due to unrestricted individualistic greed results in corrupt political processes, poverty and famine then that system should be held accountable.

Before I get accused of mischaracterising the position of economic nihilists, I will acknowledge that they appear to believe sincerely that their economic doctrines if applied fully will bring about an equitable distribution. I do not share their apparent faith in the 'goodness' of humanity. Nor their belief in the rationality of human action. I find both of these positions to be unpalatable, and extremely naive. This perhaps deserves a post of its own in the future.

In the world today on a global scale we already have a predominately non-patterned economic distribution. There are small pockets of patternicity around the world, but most of these are relatively weak. Some countries like North Korea, or the United Kingdom have a patterned distribution that goes, I would argue, in the wrong direction. The ruling class in the DPRK live in affluence, while large portions of the population struggle to be fed. Meanwhile in the UK, most of society live a largely non-patterned existence, while the royal family lives in opulence at the expense of the populace. However, situations like this are rare. Most of the inequality and class differentiation by wealth and power in the world today occurs through predominately un-patterned means.

So I hope I have made it clear what I mean by 'economic nihilism'. I think it is a much more descriptive term than things like 'laissez-faire capitalism' when referring to the actual consequences—the distributions of wealth and power—of such economic systems.


  1. I think anarcho-caps or libertarians might say they're not placing value on the lack of patternicity in itself, but that they have other values, like economic freedom, which a patterned economic system would violate. That seems coherent enough to me...where it breaks down for me is that I've never heard a good reason to value economic freedom at the expense of so many other things.

    I have known libertarians who are happy to acknowledge their system will lead to more and more inequality. I think many would acknowledge that....what they usually do believe, which you might criticise, is "a rising tide lifts all boats", "trickle down economics"; the idea that even if the rich are getting richer faster, the poor are still getting richer than they were, because the economic system is free and unpatterned.

    The UK is an interesting example. Are you meaning to emphasize formal, legal patternicity, like the royal family in the UK? How'd you characterise the US or China, where the doctrine is unpatterned but the structure is extremely patterned and helps to facilitate a continued, patterned, existence, more so than the UK?

    1. I'd still say they're valuing a-patternicity at least tangentially. They value non-coercive (except economic coercion, because for some reason that doesn't count) social relations, and non-patterned economic doctrine comes under this umbrella.

      Re: U.S.A. & China, I'd argue that these are the natural outcomes for supposed non-patterned distributions. Their extreme inequality is exacerbated by their historical class divide. In China as you probably know better than me, Deng's privatisations largely wound up in the ruling class' hands, as private wealth rather than socialised. In the US I guess you'd point to their historical slavery etc. I would argue that even without the historical factors with no imposed patternicity, inequality of that kind, an emergent patternicity if you will, is inevitable.