One of the obfuscating features of sociological commentary – whether it takes place in academic tomes or in popular magazines – is the tendency to describe the subject matter in terms of vast, overreaching abstractions. For instance, “the market” does X, “the government” does Y, “companies” do Z, and so on. Such categorisations are not, of course, unimportant; the use of shorthand is often needed as a clear identification of particular groups of individuals, each of whom share a common feature relevant to the discussion. However, the fact that every group is, indeed, nothing more than a group of individuals is precisely what is forgotten if the use of these abstractions is taken too far.
Such use becomes particularly meaningless when one starts to ascribe to these groups particular characteristics independent of those of the individual participants – as if the group itself is some kind of sentient, thinking entity. So, for instance, we are always told that “the markets” are “wild”, “capricious,” “erratic”, “reckless”, “selfish” and imbibed with “irrational exuberance”; “the government”, on the other hand, is always “wise”, “prudent”, “far sighted”, “selfless” and “serving”. Each of these groups, however, is populated by human beings, all of whom are living, breathing, thinking, desiring, choosing and acting. Only by examining the precise motivations and incentives acting upon these individuals can we ever hope to gain an understanding of the true nature of the groups they join.
One of the most serious misunderstandings to which thinking in terms of bland abstractions can lead is the idea that “government” is somehow endowed with a different set of moral rules from every other group. We all know that theft is wrong, whatever the circumstance. Regardless of your status or qualities – rich or poor, fat or thin, smart or stupid – every person can gain the property of another only by offering him something that he values in voluntary exchange (unless that person wishes to make you a gift). In short, you must offer a valuable service. Taking property that belongs to another person is almost universally condemned as immoral.