Three figures sit in a cave, a fourth approaches carrying a burning bushel.
Urg: You know fire? Well I’ve figured out to start it. It’s a cold winter, so I’m thinking we should set everything on fire.
Gru: That’s madness! Fire burns us, it is our natural enemy. We should instead splash everything with water so it can’t burn.
Rug: No, we need a reasonable compromise. We should set half the things on fire.
Gru: That won’t work- fire spreads, either everything is on fire or nothing is.
Urg: Fire gives us warmth! Gru- Do you want to go back to what the cave was like before fire? And Rug- don’t you realise that if we set half the things on fire, then the other cave societies will be warmer than us- and we will lose out in competition to them!
Oorg: … What if we just set some of the things on fire? The things that it is appropriate to set on fire. With reasonable safeguards around those things? Look, the logic of fire is that it wants to burn everything, but we could restrain it- as a light to see by, and as a motor engine for heat.
Urg: But how could we possibly know what is reasonable to set on fire, and what is not reasonable to set on fire? If we try to pick winners we will make mistakes. And what does it even mean to talk about ‘the things that it is reasonable to set on fire’? This is compounding value judgement upon value judgement.
Gru: And how could we possibly have ‘appropriate safeguards’ around fire? Fire is dangerous! If it could, it would eat the world.
Why does no one ever talk about market socialism? I don’t mean the largely discredited ‘everything is a co-op’ kind. I mean the kind where there is a market, and a price mechanism, but in the final instance all capital belongs to the public generally through a democratic state. Such a system strives to keep the dynamism and information about costs and preferences provided by a market system while ensuring not only that the profits flow equally to the public, but also there is no capitalist class intrinsically in opposition to workers, acting to prevent the proper pricing of externalities both positive and negative.
We need to move beyond arguments about whether there should be markets, or what proportion of production should be organised through markets. We need to instead start thinking about how we can control markets and when we should use them- the difference between free range fire, and fire in a hearth or forge.