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Tuesday, June 21, 2005


the need of a gatekeeper

at reason, virginia postrel monologues upon the virtue of unlimited consumer choice.

Average Americans order nonfat decaf iced vanilla lattes at Starbucks and choose from 1,500 drawer pulls at The Great Indoors. Amazon gives every town a bookstore with 2 million titles, while Netflix promises 35,000 different movies on DVD. Choice is everywhere, liberating to some but to others a new source of stress. "Stand in the corner of the toothpaste aisle with your eyes wide open and -- I swear -- it will make you dizzy," writes design critic Karrie Jacobs. Maybe the sign in Ralphs is not an enticement but a warning.

The proliferation of choices goes well beyond groceries to our most significant personal decisions. Young, well-educated adults in particular have unprecedented freedom to make whatever they want of their lives: to decide where to live, what to do, whom to befriend, whom (or whether) to marry.
ms postrel goes on to argue of the beneficence of a society unrestrained by such limitation.

there's a difference between the ideology of infinite choice and the reality. most people aren't perfectly informed -- in fact, most people are totally uninformed and have little option but to stay so, even (or maybe especially) about important issues like personal financial planning. ms postrel addresses this in saying

Libertarians sometimes talk as though the act of choosing is a good in and of itself and treat any limitation on choice as some kind of weakness, irrationality, or tyranny. Yet free individuals voluntarily limit their options all the time.
but she doesn't address the problems of a market of gatekeepers, which is that uninformed consumers are uninformed gatekeeper-selectors. as with the media choice explosion, totally free consumers choose their gatekeepers to narrow the field into a set of choices that consistently reconfirm their existing suspicions and tastes, making of the marketplace a sort of personalized ideological yes-man in the clothing of an objective, omniscient and benevolent fountain. (which gives birth to the weekly standard.) this gives the consumer the illusion of breadth and depth of experience while simply serving to narrow, reinforce, radicalize and ultimately mythologize along the lines of previously determined tastes.

gatekeepers, for their part, react to this fracturing of the body politic into self-reinforcing camps by subsequently tailoring their service not to any public empirical benefit but the most popular mythology which gives them the broadest currency within their niche. reliant as gatekeepers in this age of unlimited choice are upon gaining and holding an audience (the art of branding, in the lexicon of commerce), what they can offer their consumers is narrowed and selected to appeal to their corner of the cult of taste.

none of this would be problematic if one core assumption could be held true. at heart, ms postrel's model of choice is based on the idea that human beings are rational monads, machines of a kind which make choices to serve their own best interests. in making tastes and choosing gatekeepers, they are hoped to function to eliminate misleading information, unusable products and unfortunate tastemaking by punishing such gatekeepers as provide them by applying their sensibilities en masse, constituting an invisible hand of corrective action.

certainly, adam smith's scientific vision of the marketplace has some application -- but only, as with all models, within certain boundary limits. in fact, the vast majority of people are highly emotional, gullible and irrational, and usually have no idea what their interests are. in crowds particularly, they are susceptible to act in unison unto death in the service of even the most ridiculous notion for causes that are certainly more physiological and animal than rational.

institutional gatekeepers help moderate these problems by being resistant to the wild vacillations and mythmaking that are part of populism, providing a central framework of law within which a marketplace can function beneficially to its participants. a fundamental tenet of a healthy market is strict enforcement of a regulatory scheme which promotes transparency and honesty among the participants, demystifying motivations and information so that operators within the market at least stand a chance of exercising rational judgment in making their choices. there is a golden mean around which such a framework must stay to be valuable -- but the framework itself is vital to avoiding the degeneration of the marketplace into a sort of hobbesian free-for-all of mysticism and violence.

are such institutions subject to abuse? yes. but i think we're in the process of discovering over the long term that even an occasionally misused set of institutional gatekeepers is a far more durable and benevolent solution to the problem of social stability than freiheit. i think ms postrel totally misunderstands social obligation and its function in human societies:

"Social ties actually decrease freedom, choice, and autonomy," [Barry Schwartz] writes. "Marriage, for example, is a commitment to a particular other person that curtails freedom of choice in sexual and even emotional partners." So gays who cannot legally marry their partners are somehow freer than heterosexuals who can? There's something deeply wrong with this understanding of choice. Freedom to choose must include the freedom to commit.
looking past ms postrel's contra, which is apropo of nothing, it should be observed that a vital society is necessarily integrated by involuntary contracts. you don't choose to be american when you're born in chicago; you don't choose to be catholic when you're baptized as an infant; and yet, these obligations are the bond by which society is defined and maintained. the social ties that are the basis of civilization consist of mandatory, irreversible and powerfully enforced contracts. when people are seeking en masse ways to opt out of or void those -- in fact rejecting the institutional gatekeepers validated by the history and experience of their own society, talking instead about the responsibilities of citizenship and religion as though they were choices and nothing more -- the society isn't far from rupture and chaos.

we once kept institutions to protect ourselves from our inner moral turpitude, to ensure that our populist vacillations would not, in a fit of temporary insanity, undo that which had been learned with such difficulty over so long a time. but it's increasingly clear, with commentaries like ms postrel's gaining credibility in the public eye, that that era has passed. "freedom" is now the watchword -- not simply the right to act within law, but freiheit, inner freedom, total emancipation from mandatory obligation -- and where man is freed of all restraint and left on his own moral recognizance, i would argue social decay and civilizational disaster shortly follow.

the paradox of freiheit gave us such problems as we face -- half the people shedding responsibility onto central authority like burning clothes, half driven mad to the verge of lawlessness by the possibility of central authority growing over them -- and the same conflicted half at that, with the other sleeping blissfully and stupidly! i doubt if people of all political denominations have ever been more obsessed with inner freedom than they are now here. libertarianism itself as a political movement couldn't have existed in any previous western age because none prior has been so consumed, so obsessed, so driven to madness with desire for irresponsibility -- it's hardly accidental that the libertarian party began in the 1971.

i have to say that libertarianism as a means of social government is almost farce, so over the top is it in comic irony. adherents talk incessantly about being personally responsible -- while rejecting any obligation to anything or anyone that is not of themselves, every law mocked, every limitation reviled, every institution feared. as though being totally introverted and self-serving could be equated with real responsibility! it is to laugh to think that anyone subscribe to such thought without soon seeing its irony -- but also a measure of the infection of idealism within libertarianism that many libertarians no longer see responsibility as a social contract under tradition between parties, but rather an inner striving, a duty only to oneself.

the paranoia about obligation within libertarianism is so thoroughgoing as to make it a pinnacle achievement of selfishness. and yet, many libertarians dreamily believe that, if everyone ignores one another, no one need care for anyone else and it will all magically work out because of their misguided apprehension of an inherently limited clockwork outlined by smith and locke.

this is where we are now. libertarianism -- ms postrel's basic normative, which argues all restrictions on practical choices are by definition bad -- is a sledge with which to knock down what little is left of institutional society that could force restraint and moderation onto men -- and she writes for the new york times. it is a sad, ironic joke that some among its adherents truly believe an order which anyone would wish to have will arise from it; sadder still that such a wishful belief would have widespread currency.

locke himself was a moral philosopher who knew the dire need of law in governance. he understood that markets worked only through the force of strong law which allowed them to exist. and he would, as likely as not, vomit at the sight of libertarianism in the context of this society, dying as it is of freedom, all but crying out for order to be imposed in lawless tyranny upon those who could not see fit to order themselves because they fell in love with freiheit.

what nth degree of emancipation does postmodern man need to consider himself free? apparently one well beyond an institutional gatekeeper -- and perhaps a level beyond that which sustains order in a human society, it would seem.

you don't choose to be american when you're born in chicago; you don't choose to be catholic when you're baptized as an infant; and yet, these obligations are the bond by which society is defined and maintained. the social ties that are the basis of civilization consist of mandatory, irreversible and powerfully enforced contracts.

Since I've never been baptized, I must be on the leading edge of societal decay.

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