When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading voluntarily in markets, we find that many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The thirteenth myth — Markets Can Not Meet Human Needs, Such as Health, Housing, Education, and Food — and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.
Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism. An eleven minute podcast of Palmer speaking on this topic is at The Morality of Capitalism.
Myth: Markets Can Not Meet Human Needs, Such as Health, Housing, Education, and Food
Myth: Goods should be distributed according to principles appropriate to their nature. Markets distribute goods according to ability to pay, but health, housing, education, food, and other basic human needs, precisely because they are needs, should be distributed according to need, not ability to pay.
Tom G. Palmer: If markets do a better job of meeting human needs than other principles, that is, if more people enjoy higher standards of living under markets than under socialism, it seems that the allocation mechanism under markets does a better job of meeting the criterion of need, as well. As noted above, the incomes of the poorest tend to rise rapidly with the degree of market freedom, meaning that the poor have more resources with which to satisfy their needs. (Naturally, not all needs are directly related to income; true friendship and love certainly are not. But there is no reason to think that those are more “equitably” distributed by coercive mechanisms, either, or even that they can be distributed by such mechanisms.)
Moreover, while assertions of “need” tend to be rather rubbery claims, as are assertions of “ability,” willingness to pay is easier to measure. When people bid with their own money for goods and services, they are telling us how much they value those goods and services relative to other goods and services. Food, certainly a more basic need than education or health care, is provided quite effectively through markets. In fact, in those countries where private property was abolished and state allocation substituted for market allocation, the results were famine and even cannibalism. Markets meet human needs for most goods, including those that respond to basic human needs, better than do other mechanisms.
Satisfaction of needs requires the use of scarce resources, meaning that choices have to be made about their allocation. Where markets are not allowed to operate, other systems and criteria for rationing scarce resources are used, such as bureaucratic allocation, political pull, membership in a ruling party, relationship to the president or the main holders of power, or bribery and other forms of corruption. It is hardly obvious that such criteria are better than the criteria evolved by markets, nor that they generate more equality; the experience is rather the opposite.