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 (Updated: December 26, 2006)

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December 2006

Don Giovanni, free-marketeer


Non si picca - se sia ricca
se sia brutta, se sia bella
purchè porti la gonella
voi sapete quel che fa.

Lorenzo da Ponte, Don Giovanni, act I, scene 5

["He cares not whether she is rich, ugly or beautiful; so long as she wears a skirt, you know what he does"]

To mark the close of "Mozart year", and to bring a touch of comedy into the grey world of economics, here is an original analogy between economics and opera.

If you are trying to argue against the steamroller of free-market orthodoxy, you have a problem. For the people at the controls of the steamroller claim to have occupied the moral high ground. Their opponents are made to feel guilty. If you don't agree with the virtuous moralists, your own moral standards must be faulty.

But free-marketeers, after all, are simply advocates of a particular economic theory. How does this permit them to claim, and to persuade others, that they have God on their side? The answer lies in a simple principle: Any human being, they say, has a basic right to strike a deal with any other human being, provided both parties willingly accept the terms. That is the foundation of free-market economics, and it is presented as a basic human right. You cannot argue against basic human rights!

But is this really a fundamental and inalienable right? Let us try another question. Does a man have the right to sleep with any consenting woman he fancies? Or vice versa? Oh no! cry the moralists, the upright bourgeoisie, the respectable churchgoers, the born-again evangelicals. We can't have a world in which men feel free to behave like Don Giovanni, hero of Mozart's great opera, who - according to the meticulous catalogue kept by his servant Leporello - has seduced a total of 2,065 women:

in Italy
in Germany
in France
in Turkey
but, in Spain
already 1,003

Free-marketeers demand deregulated commerce; Don Giovanni demands deregulated sex.

Why, in fact, does one not have the moral right to unrestricted copulation? Consider just three of the various reasons. First, such behaviour frequently involves infidelity or disloyalty. In the opera, Don Giovanni is clearly unfaithful to his wife, Donna Elvira; he has evidently persuaded many wives to be unfaithful to their husbands. In fact, the Don makes no lasting relationship with any woman. He is the archetypical short-termist.

Is there an analogy here with economics? Indeed there is. Free-market ideology favours total flexibility, the absence of all loyalty in business relationships, whether between employer and employee, supplier and customer, or owner and enterprise. No question, in Britain, of loyalty to British or even European industries. If imports from afar are cheaper today, let's become dependent on remote suppliers, whether or not they are reliable and friendly long-term partners.

Second, sexual promiscuity often leads to exploitative relationships. Of Don Giovanni, Leporello tells us that sua passion predominante è la giovin principiante, "his predominant passion is for the young beginner". Clearly, a liaison between a rich and experienced libertine and an innocent maiden is unlikely to be a well-balanced relationship. Normally it is the exploitation of the girl by her seducer.

In economics, free-marketeers do not want people to protect themselves against exploitation. They abhor trade unions, professional associations, guilds, cartels, federations of small farmers or planters. They object to regulations designed to prevent people from being seduced into unfair contracts.

They argue that buyers of goods and employers of labour should deal, wherever possible and as freely as possible, with individual employees or suppliers, so that the buyers can get best terms for themselves by playing off one seller against another. Too often, this means highly unequal relationships between powerful corporate buyers and needy suppliers; especially in third-world countries, providers of many commodities and favourite places for outsourcing.

Third, the randy Don Giovanni is an outright individualist who considers himself totally free to pursue his own inclinations without regard to the consequences for others. Compare the attitude of the late Friedrich von Hayek, a leading intellectual of the "new Right". He claimed that individuals and governments cannot possibly know what is best for society. Therefore everyone should pursue his own interests, so far as the law permits, without consideration for the common good. Hayek even argued that those who follow his advice gain from not treating one another as neighbours. What a charming vision of the free-market paradise!

Respectable citizens who would not dream of tolerating the immorality of Don Giovanni are nevertheless often staunch supporters of libertarian economic principles. Yet the Don and the free-marketeers have some major points in common. Has a man the right to sleep with any woman who is willing to oblige? Has an entrepreneur the right to trade with anyone in the world on the best terms (for himself) that he can negotiate? These two questions are more alike than they seem.


Don Giovanni, act I, scene 5, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

Friedrich von Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (Routledge, London, 1988), chapter I, page 13

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