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, who is Vice President for International Programs at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, General Director of the Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace, and Prosperity, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and Director of Cato University, has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The twentieth myth — Markets Can Solve All Problems without Government at All — 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 Solve All Problems without Government at All
Myth: Government is so incompetent that it can’t do anything right. The main lesson of the market is that we should always weaken government, because government is simply the opposite of the market. The less government you have, the more market you have.
Tom G. Palmer: Those who recognize the benefits of markets should recognize that in much of the world, perhaps all of it, the basic problem is not only that governments do too much, but also that they do too little. The former category — things that governments should not do, includes A) activities that should not be done by anyone at all, such as “ethnic cleansing,” theft of land, and creating special legal privileges for elites, and B) things that could and should be done through the voluntary interaction of firms and entrepreneurs in markets, such as manufacturing automobiles, publishing newspapers, and running restaurants. Governments should stop doing all of those things. But as they cease doing what they ought not to do, governments should start doing some of the things that would in fact increase justice and create the foundation for voluntary interaction to solve problems. In fact, there is a relation between the two: governments that spend their resources running car factories or publishing newspapers, or worse — confiscating property and creating legal privileges for the few — both undercut and diminish their abilities to provide truly valuable services that governments are able to provide. For example, governments in poorer nations rarely do a good job of providing clear legal title, not to mention securing property from takings. Legal systems are frequently inefficient, cumbersome, and lack the independence and impartiality that are necessary to facilitate voluntary transactions.
For markets to be able to provide the framework for social coordination, property and contract must be well established in law. Governments that fail to provide those public benefits keep markets from emerging. Government can serve the public interest by exercising authority to create law and justice, not by being weak, but by being legally authoritative and at the same time limited in its powers. A weak government is not the same as a limited government. Weak unlimited governments can be tremendously dangerous because they do things that ought not to be done but do not have the authority to enforce the rules of just conduct and provide the security of life, liberty, and estate that are necessary for freedom and free market exchanges. Free markets are not the same as the sheer absence of government. Not all anarchies are attractive, after all. Free markets are made possible by efficiently administered limited governments that clearly define and impartially enforce rules of just conduct.
It is also important to remember that there are plenty of problems that have to be solved through conscious action; it’s not enough to insist that impersonal market processes will solve all problems. In fact, as Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase explained in his important work on the market and the firm, firms typically rely on conscious planning and coordination to achieve common aims, rather than on constant recourse to market exchanges, because going to the market is costly. Each contract arranged is costly to negotiate, for example, so long-term contracts are used instead to reduce contracting costs. In firms, long-term contracts substitute for spot-exchanges and include labor relations involving teamwork and conscious direction, rather than constant bidding for particular services. Firms — little islands of teamwork and planning — are able to succeed because they navigate within a wider ocean of spontaneous order through market exchanges. (The great error of the socialists was to try to manage the entire economy like one great firm; it would be a similar error not to recognize the limited role of conscious direction and teamwork within the wider spontaneous order of the market.) To the extent that markets can provide the framework of creation and enforcement of rules of just conduct, advocates of free markets should promote just that. Private security firms are often better than state police (and less violent, if for no other reason than that the cost of violence are not easily shifted to third parties, except by the state); voluntary arbitration often works far better than state courts. But recognizing that entails recognizing the central role of rules in creating markets and, thus, favoring efficient and just rules, whether provided by government or by the market, rather than merely being “anti-government.”
Finally, it should be remembered that property and market exchange may not, by themselves, solve all problems. For example, if global warming is in fact a threat to the entire planet’s ability to sustain life, or if the ozone layer is being degraded in ways that will be harmful to life, coordinated government solutions may be the best, or perhaps the only, way to avoid disaster. Naturally, that does not mean that markets would play no role at all; markets for rights to carbon dioxide emissions might, for example, help to smooth adjustments, but those markets would first have to be established by coordination among governments. What is important to remember, however, is that deciding that a tool is not adequate and appropriate for all conceivable problems does not entail that it is not adequate and appropriate for any problems. The tool many work very well for some or even most problems. Property and markets solve many problems and should be relied on to do so; if they do not solve all, that is no reason to reject them for problems for which they do offer efficient and just solutions.
Free markets may not solve every conceivable problem humanity might face, but they can and do produce freedom and prosperity, and there is something to be said for that.