24 September 2009

Establishing "Free Markets" With Tear Gas

Police fire rubber bullets at demonstrators during a protest
against the G20 Pittsburgh Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
September 24, 2009. Photograph credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Markets are good things. But markets take many forms and they require all sorts of institutional scaffolding - political, legal, etc. - before we can have faith that they will operate in the nice ways economists promise that they will. One need only read accomplished economists like Dani Rodrik, Amartya Sen or Joseph Stiglitz to understand that elementary point. Moreover, markets do not spring up like mushrooms in a damp backyard. They need to be institutionalized. And much of the talk about free trade and its virtues manages to overlook the fact that the process of establishing markets often is quite coercive. It does not operate in an nice efficient way.

Unsurprisingly, the meeting of the leaders of the G20 in Pittsburgh has drawn protesters - people who are concerned about threats to labor rights or environmental degradation or any of several other dangers that market fundamentalists downplay in their zeal for unfettered markets. And just as unsurprisingly the local, state and national authorities have spared little expense in providing for "security" against the protesters. (According to this report in The New York Times the bill will run at least $14 million US.) Also according to The Times: "A National Guard combat battalion that recently returned from Iraq is joining the city's police force of about 900 officers in patrolling the streets. The city has also called on an additional 3,000 city, state and federal officers to help." If we low ball and assume a battalion is 1000 troops, that means that there will be roughly 5000 armed personnel patrolling the streets of Pittsburgh. And city officials have taken other steps in anticipation of protests: "The city had locked down its business district known as the Golden Triangle, in preparation for possible clashes. Riot fences lined the sidewalks. Helicopters, gunboats and Humvees darted to and fro. City officials announced they had up to 1,000 jail cells ready for law breakers, after county officials freed up additional space last week by releasing 300 people from jail who had been arrested on minor probation violations." Of course, too, they are trying to insure that protesters can exercise their free speech right only in designated areas where no one attending the summit could actually hear an opposing view point. As the image I've lifted above attests, already the military/police have begun to use riot control weapons - concussion grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and so forth - to 'control' the unarmed protesters. Free markets indeed.

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