Besmirching Markets
By Tibor Machan - April 16, 2014

As an avid reader of all kinds of fiction – part entertainment, part cultural anthropology – my attention is perked whenever I see authors get sneaky on us. This occurs often when they wish to make a political point but not to take responsibility for doing so. They are too lazy or ignorant to actually argue their case but will not resist laying in with a few nasty licks, probably in the hope of influencing their readers.

One author I have enjoyed reading is the Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell whose protagonist, Inspector Wallander, is a rather reflective, often moody, bloke with whom it is a pleasure to spend some time, at least for me. However, as narrator, Mankell sticks in some lulus that I'd love to debate with him.

In one of his novels I read, The Man Who Smiled (1994), Wallander is dueling with a vicious – of course very rich – villain who is involved in murdering people for their healthy organs so he can then sell them to wealthy recipients. When he comments on this in a somewhat slip shod exchange with Wallander, he says, "I buy and sell. I am an actor on the stage governed by market forces. I never miss an opportunity, no matter how small and significant it is …." Mankell, the narrator, then injects that "Human life is insignificant, then …," presumably for entrepreneurs, for all those "actors on the stage governed by market forces."

No character in the book, of course, disputes the villain's slander of market forces. No one observes that selling organs you obtained my murdering people contradicts every principle of the free market, which, after all, relies entirely on voluntary exchanges, including of donated or sold body parts, blood or whatever. Indeed, genuine free trade in such items may be upsetting to some but it contributes immensely to the well being of recipients as well as sellers.

It is elementary business ethics that trade must be freely consented to. It is not actually trade otherwise. All those who deal in stolen goods violate free market principles, let alone people who resort to murder and other bona fide crimes. One reason dealing with dictatorships is frowned upon from a free-market, capitalist perspective is that it risks involving people against their will. Even the welfare state isn't clean, from a pure free-market perspective, since it involves extensive wealth redistribution, subsidies, protectionism, the extortion known as taxation and so forth, all in violation of real free trade.

When Ayn Rand's blockbuster novel Atlas Shrugged appeared in 1957, a good many snooty literati faulted it for being too didactic, lacking in subtlety, arguing points explicitly, indeed in lengthy dissertations by her protagonists. This was often deemed to be lacking in finesse, something contemporary novelists must deploy lest they be clearly understood.

No one I have read commenting to Hanning Mankell's well written and plotted crime novels has faulted him for injecting slip shod political economic comments into his works. Somehow doing didactic, not to mention primitive, political economy seems to be okay by novelists if they oppose full human freedom, if they champion the welfare state (which Swedish Inspector Wallander supports wholeheartedly and whose inefficiencies and other faults he tends to blame on various vague cultural influences).

Okay, most novelists aren't all that bright and savvy when it comes to political economy. They work with their sloppy intuitions and sentiments rather than well-educated reflections. So I figure it is not dirty pool for me to report on at least one favorite of one prominent genre who is trying to pull off some literary dirty tricks while entertaining us.

Oddly enough, in another of his pretty good books, The Dogs of Riga, Mankell appears to have grasped well enough some of the evils of socialism. The story unfolds just as Latvia is becoming free of Soviet domination and Mankell seems to know well enough what that glorious egalitarian system does to human community life.

But I suppose he like millions of others dreams of some kind of "third way," between top-down socialist rule and the fully free market. But it just will not wash and his way of sneaking in some nasty intimations about free markets is way off.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap