“Rigging”, Markets, Democracy & Civilization

In a December 2018 opinion article, conservative columnist Bret Stephens observes of 2020 Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren that she

presumably believes that various forms of rigging are required to un-rig past rigging. Affirmative action in college admissions and aggressive minority recruitment in corporations are also forms of “rigging.”

Of course, Stephens seems to ignore the awkward fact that ALL systems favor certain outcomes. That’s why we institute them in the first place. Any kind of human craft or art, weaving or painting, religion or politics, is “rigged” in the sense that it is structured, sometimes quite elaborately, to bring about a desired outcome and not merely chaos or disorder. We only disparage such structuring when it happens not to favor us but rather “the other guy”. And we also often forget that human civilizations themselves are whole systems “rigged” on our behalf. If they weren’t rigged, fixed, slanted, biased, etc., why on earth (or anywhere else) would we pursue them? We put our energies where we see or hope for results. In spite of our hopes, fears, and superstitions, most of us, even if we buy a lottery ticket, still keep working till we win.

terracing — an ancient example of a human system cooperating with natural ones, “rigged” to favor increased production

Likewise, so-called natural systems like regional and local ecologies, including the microbiomes each of us carry around in our guts, favor certain results over others. Evolution and genetic adaptation are forms of “rigging”: natural selection favors behaviors, traits and capacities responsive to the environment. We just tend not to perceive these as “rigging” because — we claim — no “intelligence” backs them, manipulating them for its advantage. But we could just as easily assert that life itself is intelligent — it adapts itself to new situations, to changing contexts —  in short, to the environment. If it fails to do so, it dies. Humans and human institutions are no different. (To the extent that artificial intelligence masters the ability to adapt to its environment, we may eventually call it “conscious”, which is only another name for “REALLY good at adapting”.)

What both Trump and Warren have pointed out is that every form of government attempts to advance its particular variety of rigging, and suppress others. (This is not to say there are no differences between Trump and Warren, but rather that a study of  the differences and the projected outcomes of their particular rigging is a different issue than the existence of rigging in the first place.) Further, a nominally “free market” is simply a system we have rigged to remove obstacles to certain kinds of economic activity, in order to favor specific outcomes we have chosen. We structure or “rig” such a market to be free of limits to competition, though of course there are always limits. Such a market never occurs “by itself”, but requires human law, political support, and consensus on the part of those involved if it is to work as intended. A market of any kind is a set of agreements, a system, and is rigged by its very nature. It is certainly not “free” in the sense of “naturally occurring” — a pleasant but deeply deceptive fiction: economics as it would happen “without human interference”. For of course any human economy is a system, a rigging, as are language, culture, dynamics between the sexes, etc.

In sum, rigging of some kind is a necessity — it’s what makes human life possible. The challenge we face is to make particular forms of rigging work for us, and — if we desire a functioning democracy — to work for as many of us as fairly as possible.

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NOTE: Individual posts express the opinions and perspectives of the author and do not necessarily reflect official Sovermian policy or practice, unless explicitly indicated as such in a particular post.

IMAGE: Pexels.com


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