Bryan Caplan  

What Is Resentment?

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My Simplistic Theory of Left and Right states that "The left is anti-market."  There are three recurring critiques of my claim.

1. "Most leftists don't hate markets."  I agree, but I never said that.  You can be anti-X without hating X; indeed, this is normally true.  When I say "The left is anti-market," I'm claiming that when left-leaning people think about markets, their primary emotion is the much milder one of resentment.

2. "Most leftists don't resent markets at all; we just have the following list of complaints about markets."  This would be a fine response if the list of complaints were mild.  It would be pretty convincing if the typical leftist accepted half of the popular complaints about markets, but eagerly denied the other half.  And it would be a great criticism if the standard leftist view were, "Markets are awesome, but regulation and a safety net make them even more awesome."  But attitudes in these ballparks are rare.  One of my left-leaning friends approvingly quoted Bernie Sanders to show that even the Bern vocally appreciates markets:
A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us.
But to my ears, Sanders words are resentment incarnate (and if there's video of the speech, I strongly suspect his facial expression is non-happy during this entire passage).  These are all big complaints - and he clearly thinks the U.S. and other modern market economies instantiate them.  His complaints look even bigger if you remember that modern market economies already have well-developed programs and regulations intended to address these concerns, but Bernie's still deeply dissatisfied.  There's no sign that he rejects any popular complaint about markets; instead, he eagerly adopts whatever complaints he can get his hands on.  And he certainly isn't saying his policies make markets "even more awesome"; instead, he's saying that markets without the added checks he favors are simply bad.

Not convinced?  Picture anything you consider basically good, but less than perfect.  Say, moms.  What emotional state would you ascribe to a person who said...
Mothers are beneficial for gestation and care-taking.  But if we let the quest for maternal pride dominate the family; if children become disposable cogs of the after-school activities system; if vast inequalities of power and desserts lead to marginalization of the young and powerless; then the common good is squandered and motherhood fails us.
Frankly, this sounds like someone with dire Mommy Issues.  Even if they insist they're not "anti-mom," neutral observers will understandably label them as such.

3. "Leftists aren't anti-market, because our complaints are justified."  My Simplistic Theory isn't intended to judge whether any ideology is true or reasonable.  When it says, "The right is anti-left," it doesn't mean, "The right is more anti-left than appropriate."  Similarly, when it says, "The left is anti-market," it doesn't mean "The left is more anti-market than appropriate."  In both cases, I'm simply stating that each side feels resentment for something.  Describing the enduring commonalities of left and right is hard enough without trying to simultaneously evaluate the ideologies.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Effem writes:

I would characterize the smart people i know on the Left as believing: "markets are very efficient at achieving outcomes, but they often achieve undesirable outcomes."

The free market would happily concentrate all wealth in one person and make the rest of us slaves if that were the wealth-maximizing path. That doesn't sit well with the Left.

Dan Miller writes:

When a libertarian says that something is "anti-market", there's a strong implication that this is unreasonable or inappropriate. The entire ideology is built on encouraging positive feelings about markets.

Ted writes:

Here's my simplistic theory of Left and Right:

The Left thinks 1+2=3. The Right thinks 3+4=7.

My theory is true. Most Leftists - not all, but a solid majority - will acknowledge that 1+2=3. Most Rightists - not all, but a solid majority - will acknowledge that 3+4=7.

You see, the value of a theory of Left and Right is not whether it's true.

It's whether that theory is a useful & defining feature of the Left. Something that maximally and simply separates the two sides.

And in my opinion, one of the major problems with the theory that Leftists are anti-market is the fact that Rightists are anti-market too.

The Right is against free trade agreements. The Right supports greater government spending. The Right supports social security. And so forth.

And if both Leftists and Rightists are anti-market, then the (true) theory that Leftists are anti-market is not at all a useful theory of Left and Right.

For a good theory, only half of the argument is whether the Left believes X. The other half must be that X doesn't believe X. And so far, you haven't shown that, as I recall.

Michael writes:

Effem, markets are voluntary exchanges, so to achieve the pathological results you fear needs a very special situation, which is NOT common at all. To claim otherwise and focus on the danger that markets might degenerate (into what non-market exchanges DO commonly do) is exactly the attitude of resentment Bryan describes.

Thank you for a great example

Michael writes:

Dan, so libertarians are most likely right wing by Bryan's definition, and by others as well. Not sure if this applies to Bryan, as he doesn't seem to particularly resent the left, and differs from (most of) the right (and left) on immigration.

So what? Does this make the definition any less useful?

[The comment by "Dan" was removed previously.-- Econlib Editor.]

blacktrance writes:

My main objection to the simplistic theory is that it doesn't explain the leftist position on issues where the market is peripheral or uninvolved. Leftist opposition to the market doesn't explain why they favor multiculturalism over assimilation, group rights instead of individualism, etc.

blacktrance writes:

The left and right are both typically anti-market, which is possible because there are more ways to be anti-market than to be pro-market. For example, the left might want to subsidize a good because they think the market is bad at providing it, and the right might respond by taxing it because they're anti-left. The result is that both sides take an anti-market position.

RPLong writes:

Ted makes a great point that the left and right are indeed both anti-market. However, I think the thrust of Bryan Caplan's idea is that the left is anti-market because they resent markets, whereas the right is anti-market because they resent liberal reforms.

To the extent that markets oppose leftism, the right loves markets. That's why conservatives find it so easy to pay lip service to the capitalist system in their rhetoric. There is no analogous rhetoric on the left. We can accuse the right of disingenuously praising markets, but we can't accuse the left of praising markets at all, disingenuously or otherwise. Caplan's citation of Bernie Sanders drives the point home.

aretae writes:

I've been reading along for the string of posts on this topic...without commentary.

I'm inclined to suggest that the Kling 3-axis model is simply a better explanation of the issue here.

Fundamentally, leftists are not anti-market. They are pro-fairness and equality. This means they are also anti-predation, opposed to the powerful taking advantage of the weak. They view power-imbalances and inequality as indicative of predation and taking-advantage, and markets produce buckets full of power imbalance.

Conservatives, the right, are not anti-left. They are pro-civilization, and opposed to all the forces that are attempting to tear down the world we live in. Leftists, Jihadists, Communists, and Immigrants are all threatening (to some extent) to change our GOOD(!) way of life.

And Libertarians, neither left nor right, are pro-voluntarism, anti-force.

This seems a MUCH deeper framework, and much more useful/predictive than the one you're offering. Do you have a reason for rejecting Kling?

Effem writes:


Of course my example was extreme, and unlikely. But it's also a theoretically possible market outcome. Markets have no consideration other than wealth maximization.

In the (mostly) free market for low-skill labor, the market moved production offshore, leaving an entire generation of low-skilled labor with stagnant living standards, dying towns, rising mortality, etc. The market simply applauds this. And those who benefit the most? Often it's those who have barriers to competition in their own area but source labor globally. I lean Right, but i can absolutely understand why those on the Left would hesitate to applaud such a system.

The blind spot on the Right is conflating "business" with "free market." The goal of any business is to create barriers to other words, to destroy the free market. A monopoly is the best possible business. An oligopoly isn't far behind.

So the Left doesn't understand how to use the power of markets and the Right applauds those who build barriers to competition. I know of few actual pro-market people once I drill down into what that would really mean.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

aretae, I agree that Kling's three languages model is very useful, but I think there might be an intersection between Caplan's point and Kling's point.

The urban housing crisis is a good example of this, I think. There may be no better example of a problem that falls overwhelmingly on marginal and vulnerable households and is the product of obstacles to the allocation of capital and the unfettered functioning of markets. Millions of households with low incomes have flooded out of cities that have the most income opportunities because those cities have developed politically hampered housing markets. Clearly supply solves this problem. It isn't debatable. No city with reasonable levels of housing starts has an affordability problem.

But, in those cities, progressives routinely complain about building "market rate" housing units. Of course, this is absurd. There is nothing about the cost of those units that has anything to do with markets. Those units are very expensive because city governments load them with taxes, fees, and delays, which keep the cost of new housing far above the basic cost of construction. "Market rate" units would be much more affordable than anything that can be built in those cities.

In this context, the intellectual self-deception and pretzel twisting in order to deny the equalizing effects of functioning markets allows progressives to maintain an "oppressor-oppressed" framing while remaining anti-market. If they were working in the "oppressor-oppressed" framework without this anti-market bias, they would be marching for "market rate" units, not against them. And the difference is a bright line. You can't get to where they are without a strong anti-market bias.

And, on this topic, in the end, the anti-market bias wins. They are self-deceived oppressors, and their oppressed victims move by the millions to cities with plentiful "market rate" housing units.

Philo writes:

When Bryan Caplan describes someone as "anti-market," I infer that he considers that person anti-market to a greater-than-appropriate degree. But he didn't say that; what he meant by 'anti-market' is what anyone else, libertarian or not, means by the term.

Marc writes:

Shortly after reading this, I was walking around the college campus where I work and heard not 1, not 2, but 3 people use the term "free market" as a perjorative. This is so common among progressives that I rarely even notice any more, and would not have noticed, had I not just read this. I think that is probably the best evidence of being anti-market.

Lawrence writes:

There are a lot of issues this theory does not cover (why does the right generally want to outlaw abortion, while the left wants to make it more accessible?).

As for economic issues, the notion that the left can be defined as being anti-market has merit. I think I would define them as being pro-government intervention in the market, but yes, they are definitely anti-market.

But defining the right as being anti-left seems to me to fall flat. They are two opposing things, to be one is almost by definition to be 'anti' the other. Saying the right is anti-left doesn't add anything.

Ally writes:


"The free market would happily concentrate all wealth in one person and make the rest of us slaves if that were the wealth-maximizing path."

I think you have mistakenly anthropomorphised "the market" here. "The market" is merely the aggregate result of individual exchanges between millions of individuals. It does not "happily" do anything, nor does it necessarily select for the most "wealth-maximizing path".

"Markets have no consideration other than wealth maximization."

Markets have no consideration. Period. Again, it is mistaken anthropomorphism to suppose otherwise. Even if the goal of everyone participating in a market was maximisation of either their own personal wealth, or total wealth of that society, it does not necessarily follow that the resultant emergent market process will lead to the path of maximum wealth for either.

"In the (mostly) free market for low-skill labor, the market moved production offshore, leaving an entire generation of low-skilled labor with stagnant living standards, dying towns, rising mortality, etc. The market simply applauds this. And those who benefit the most? Often it's those who have barriers to competition in their own area but source labor globally."

What about the low-skilled labour in the poorer countries to which the production was moved 'offshore'? Are they not prominent candidates for those who benefit most from such an arrangement?

Effem writes:


The market" is merely the aggregate result of individual exchanges between millions of individuals.

While I agree with you in theory, in practice i think the free market often breeds entities with enough power to override the free market. In a way, the free market is self-defeating. Yes, i know in theory we need to police this. In practice the policing is done by those who benefited from the situation in the first place.

What about the low-skilled labour in the poorer countries to which the production was moved 'offshore'? Are they not prominent candidates for those who benefit most from such an arrangement?

Yes, they seem to have gained (although happiness surveys in places like China would disagree). However, I can fully understand why some wouldn't support a system which helps those at a distance but hurts those in close promiximity. If something hurt your family, but helped a family on the other side of Earth i'm pretty sure you wouldn't support that system. Proximity matters to humans.

Lawrence writes:

" practice i think the free market often breeds entities with enough power to override the free market."

In practice, entities which have the power to override the free market almost always have gotten that power from government action. Often by regulations that nominally are supposed to prevent market abuses, but have actually been written in a process driven by regulatory capture to favour large market incumbents.

Hazel Meade writes:

The free market would happily concentrate all wealth in one person and make the rest of us slaves if that were the wealth-maximizing path.

This is an example of what I have said about leftist ideology always going back to Marx as the touchstone. Because this idea that capitalism inevitably leads to increasing concentrations of wealth is a key point of Marxist economics.
The hard left is always saying we're in so-called "late stage capitalism", which is what Marx described as the stage in which the economy has been concentrated almost entirely into monopolies, which is supposed to be right before the socialist revolution, in which the government nationalizes the monopolies and runs them as state owned enterprises.

The thing is that this idea that one person or entity could own everything just doesn't really *work* economically. As the Keynesians are fond of pointing out, nobody can buy anything from you if you have all the money. As a thought experiment, let's just imagine a situation where one corporation produced all the goods and employed all the workers, and then paid it's employees (being a monopsony) less than needed to buy the goods. Obviously, this isn't a stable situation - the giant corporation wouldn't have a market to sell anything to.
Now the leftist answer to this is usually "yes, that's when The Revolution happens". But the libertarian answer is really "ridiculous, we'd never actually get into that situation, because the market couldn't possibly arrive at that as an equilibrium in the first place." As soon as people couldn't afford to buy the products, prices would have to be cut or else the corporation would lose money, nevermind that competitors would enter the market and gain market share.

Jonathan Gress-Wright writes:


At this point you realize they're mostly thinking emotionally rather than rationally. They base their ideology on fear of some situation that has a microscopic chance of happening in a genuine free market, but as long as you can't deny that there is a mathematical chance, they seize on that and think it invalidates your whole argument. Of course, the fact that the government could also theoretically be tyrannical doesn't register.

Hazel Meade writes:

Well actually, If you're a serious leftist, you WANT that to happen, because it's what's supposed to happen, according to Marxist philosophy of historical materialism, as History inevitably winds it's what towards the socialist utopia. Many leftists eagerly announce the arrival of "late stage capitalism" every few years, as it heralds the coming Revolution.
During the 2008 financial crisis, there's was no shortage of Marxists jumping out of the woodwork yelling "Look! Late Stage Capitalism! See? SEE!!!!"

Chris writes:


You're being condescending again. The left is not thinking emotionally, but is thinking empathetically, and it is definitely not thinking irrationally. Also there is no such thing as a "genuine free market" because there are always constraints of some sort; even the Libertarians put constraints on the market (no selling people, for instance). In the real world both the Market and the State can and do cause harm to a huge number of people, because both are composed of people and people do terrible things sometimes.

The left, on the whole, isn't really anti-market or anti-government, that would be like saying I'm anti-hammer or anti-screwdriver, which is silly. The left just wants to use each tool appropriately in order to limit harm and help those that are marginalized.

Continuing the analogy: The Market and the State are tools. The right would use those tools to protect their own status, the left to protect the status of the marginalized, the libertarians are in love with one of the tools and communists are in love with the other.

Tom West writes:


I think you have mistakenly anthropomorphised "the market" here.

I think anthropomorphisation of the market tends to help the pro-market forces more than it harms them.

By treating the market as thing rather than a process, we can talk about "preserving the market" as if the market has a value in and of itself.

Try that with physics and most people back away from you slowly. Physics isn't seen as a good in and of itself, only as a process that can be modified to better people's lives.

With physics, there's no a priori assumption that non-interference is any better than interference. Would you want that for the market?

Hazel Meade writes:

"The Market and the State are tools. "

Chris, The market is people. People aren't tools, and shouldn't be used as tools. They have rights.

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