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A Reply to a Douglas Rushkoff Fan

A young woman from St. Paul e-mailed me today to express her distress at my “wrong and Kochish comprehension” of Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus.  Here’s my reply to her.

Ms. Jessica Robiskie

Ms. Robiskie:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You accuse me of “not understanding” Douglas Rushkoff’s “appraisement of capitalism.”  You believe that Rushkoff argues that “if the powerful and capital owners” had not during pre-industrial times “thwarted emerging peer-to-peer markets that nurtured personal connections, polyvalues and shared meaning,” we would today all be “richer in human experience” than we in fact are given that “we now are trapped in a faceless capital dictated and ruinous monovalues ‘market’.”

I confess that I struggle to understand your point.  (I’ve never, for example, seen the words “polyvalues” and “monovalues.”  Nor has my spell-checker.)  But I’ll take a stab at addressing one of the points that I think you (and Rushkoff) have in mind – namely, that human beings today would be wealthier if we had fewer economic relationships with distant strangers and more such relationships with people who live and work in close geographic proximity to us, and who we know personally.

I believe that this romanticization of local exchange – and the collateral hostility to long-distance trade – are deeply flawed and dangerous.  I believe that you do not understand just how poor you (and the rest of us) would be if global, innovative, capital-rich markets had never emerged to connect billions of strangers together.  You wouldn’t be just a bit poorer.  You’d be unimaginably destitute – if, indeed, you would even be alive (and you must be alive to be “richer in human experience”).

Look around your home.  Nearly everything you see is the result of the combined efforts and creativity of literally hundreds of millions of people from across the world who are connected together by markets.  The electricity alone that makes possible your e-mail to me requires a power plant, which – while perhaps manned by people who live near you – is equipped with turbines and wires and computers and plumbing and steel and glass and paint and furniture and flooring almost none of which was made near you or from materials that are found in the earth near you.  That power plant is insured by a company whose executives and actuaries and secretaries and IT staffers and janitors are complete strangers to you and to me.  And that plant’s construction and operation are financed by yet a different company that uses money voluntarily entrusted to it by countless people from around the globe.  Yet how much did you pay for the electricity that makes our communication possible?  The answer is a fraction of a cent.  For an undetectable fraction of a cent, you and I can have this conversation in real time even though the physical distance that separates us is one that in pre-industrial times required several days for a single message to travel across.

And that’s just the few sparks of electricity that we’re using in this one e-mail conversation.  When you add to that everything else that makes your life safe, sanitary, and sumptuous – your many changes of clothing, your polio vaccination, your computer, your yoga video, your toothpaste, the hard roof over your head, the Boeing 737 that will carry you safely through the skies to visit a boyfriend or to see your grandmother on her birthday, the food in your belly, in your fridge, and down at your favorite Thai, Mexican, and Ethiopian restaurants – none of these things would exist in the absence of the vast global market that peacefully connects billions of strangers together.

Yes, these globe-spanning connections are mostly faceless.  And, yes, they are influenced by owners of capital (although owners of capital are, in turn, influenced overwhelmingly by the choices of consumers).  But these connections are utterly necessary to supply you with the material wealth that enables you to spend time reading Douglas Rushkoff’s books and to join with him in the luxury of worrying about the extent to which our economic relationships rest on “polyvalues” or on “monovalues.”

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercator Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030