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The Dangers of Reification

Saturday 31st March, 2012

In a 1987 interview for Woman’s Own magazine, Margaret Thatcher famously quipped that “there is no such thing as society”. This quote caused a lot of controversy, such that Thatcher addressed it in her 1993 autobiography, The Downing Street Years:

They never quoted the rest. I went on to say: There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour. My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.

It’s true that society is an abstraction—an oft useful one, but an abstraction nonetheless. And therefore when we say ‘it is the responsibility of society to do XYZ,’ we must bear in mind that we are talking about the components which make up that abstraction: the individuals. When we do err in our use of it, we are committing the Fallacy of Reification. I find it a lot easier to use standard terms of art from the field of logic rather than explain the point every time.

In any dialogue, we hope to improve our own argument by having a skilled opponent who can point out these mistakes. But we also have to be our own critics. As libertarians, as much as we like to point out the fallacy of reifying society when committed by left-leaning thinkers, we also have to avoid the trap of referring to the market as a reified entity.

There is no such thing as the market. There are individual actors, and there are businesses. The business is reified through the concept of the legal corporation, which is a little more concrete, but the corporate veil remains a thin one. When we say “the market will fix this problem”, what we mean to say is that businesses and individuals will rise to a challenge because it is in their economic interest to solve it. But this is never guaranteed, and assuming that a ‘market’ even exists for a given solution is dangerous.

I’m not arguing in favour of the government running everything; I remain a lover of economic freedom and I believe that a small government is better than a large one. But there have been many tragic situations where a government has cut-and-run from a project they couldn’t manage effectively, expecting ‘the market’ to pick it up and instantly solve all the issues. The simple libertarian recommendation of “let the market fix it” needs to be rethought in terms of establishing robust ‘starting variables’ for common pool resource management systems that allow a market to grow—a phrase which here means ‘encourage motivated economic agents to sustainably compete over resources’.

As participants of a debate, we must be aware of the language we use to think and talk about these matters, so that we can improve the quality of our discourse and bring better arguments to the table, even if that means admitting to a few past mistakes.