In economist Ha-Joon Chang’s wonderful book, “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism,” the first of the 23 things is that there are no absolutely free markets.
Think about it. If freeing up markets were always the solution, then wouldn’t we allow the purchase of slaves, hiring of eight year olds, and immigration of anyone who wanted to work here at any price? No free market purist can or would advocate these things. So where do they draw the line?
Wherever they want. And then they pretend there is no line. They claim to be purists. No fine-line—to every question the answer is always completely free markets. But they never really mean it. Like all of us they have to draw fine lines between for example leaving things to markets and regulating things like child labor. When they say free, they mean freer and certainly not across the board. They mean freer on whatever they happen to want freer.
Moral relativism has a bad reputation these days. I think immoral relativism is worse, the immorality of relativism dressed up in absolute purity’s clothing: Bible interpreters who claim to be literalists, self-proclaimed “originalists” whose supposedly literal read of the Constitution is as much an interpretation as anyone else’s, conservatives who demand a return to the only true and pure values while cherry-picking the values they value, and liberals too who pretend they believe in the pure principle of love when they, like the rest of us are picking and choosing.
Advocating a self-serving position in the name of absolute purity is the putrefaction of democratic discourse. And blindness to one’s own biases is no excuse so long as you’re out there accusing everyone else of being biased.
Here’s how to be an immoral relativist:
1. Paint a bull’s eye that pinpoints your own biased opinion as the center point, the goal, the ideal, the pure non-divergent position.
2. Forget that you did this.
3. Point to the bull’s eye you’ve painted and shout at people, “Can’t you see? Isn’t it obvious that the pure unadulterated, unbiased absolute center, the balanced, fair and perfect position, is right here at the center of this objectively crafted bull’s eye?!
The technique goes way back. Try this from Plato’s dialogues:
Socrates. And what is piety, and what is impiety?
Euthyphro. Piety is doing as I am doing…
Socrates. …I would rather hear from you a more precise answer, which you have not as yet given, my friend, to the question, What is “piety”? When asked, you only replied, Doing as you do…
Euthyphro. And what I said was true, Socrates.
Socrates. No doubt, Euthyphro; but you would admit that there are many other pious acts?
Euthyphro. There are.
Socrates. Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious…
Euthyphro tries to answer Socrates but eventually gives up, unable to balance competing pieties.
Balancing is harder than leaning, as any gym rat will tell you. It takes more energy to lift free weights than machine weights. With machine weights you lean and push. With free weighs you balance and push, which is harder.
Easiest of all is leaning into Euthyphro’s “doing what I’m doing” and calling it pure piety, scorning others for tainting things by trying to find balance weighing relative merits.
In my lifetime there has never been more of this immoral relativism in public discourse than there is now. It is a worrying sign.