Marketing markets.

Author:Gardner, Gary
Position:Gasoline tax

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In February, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed suggestions that a gasoline tax could help cure America's addiction to oil. "The president and I ... are big believers in the market," Cheney declared, offering his preferred solution to the problem. Cheney's input invoked one of the most powerful icons in modern politics: "the market" has achieved mythic status as a larger-than-life, quasi-magical, all-knowing force that can cure most any economic, environmental, or social ill. But this view emerges from an exaggerated or oversimplified understanding of its central features. Misrepresented and oversold, "the market" is pressured by political and business leaders to promise more than it can deliver--in the process obscuring its true value to modern societies.

Cheney's handful of utterances on the gasoline tax, reported by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, reveals how political treatment of markets borders on iconography. Consider how much Cheney communicates in just four sentences on the subject. Then consider the reality behind the rhetoric.

"The president and I ... are big believers in the market." In this capstone statement "the market" is referred to in the singular, giving it the status of an institution akin to "the university" or "the family." But markets are more than another societal institution. Markets in modern political discourse are almost spiritual in nature; they are things you believe in. Their logic and power--particularly the feature known as the "invisible hand"--are rooted in psychology and therefore are more ethereal and mysterious than legislation, regulations, or other more concrete human instruments. With its capacity to direct human activity, the market is nearly a deity in modern political discussion, and many leaders and citizens prostrate themselves before it. But properly conceived, the market is just a tool, one that is shaped by human beings and which exists to serve human needs. Imagine a carpenter echoing the vice president: "My foreman and I are big believers in the hammer," as though a hammer required belief, and as though it could direct the construction of a house.

Of course, markets are not hammers. Markets are in fact amazing tools. The ability of Adam Smith's invisible hand to bring together buyers and sellers...

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