When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading freely in markets, we find that many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The fourth myth — Markets Depend on Perfect Information, Requiring Government Regulation to Make Information Available — 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.
Myth: Markets Depend on Perfect Information, Requiring Government Regulation to Make Information Available
Myth: For markets to be efficient, all market participants have to be fully informed of the costs of their actions. If some have more information than others, such asymmetries will lead to inefficient and unjust outcomes. Government has to intervene to provide the information that markets lack and to create outcomes that are both efficient and just.
Tom G. Palmer: Information, like every other thing we want, is always costly, that is, we have to give something up to get more of it. Information is itself a product that is exchanged on markets; for examples, we buy books that contain information because we value the information in the book more than we value what we give up for it. Markets do not require for their operation perfect information, any more than democracies do. The assumption that information is costly to market participants but costless to political participants is unrealistic in extremely destructive ways. Neither politicians nor voters have perfect information. Significantly, politicians and voters have less incentive to acquire the right amount of information than do market participants, because they aren’t spending their own money. For example, when spending money from the public purse, politicians don’t have the incentive to be as careful or to acquire as much information aspeople do when they are spending their own money.
A common argument for state intervention rests on the informational asymmetries between consumers and providers of specialized services. Doctors are almost always more knowledgeable about medical matters than are patients, for example; that’s why we go to doctors, rather than just curing ourselves. Because of that, it is alleged that consumers have no way of knowing which doctors are more competent, or whether they are getting the right treatment, or whether they are paying too much. Licensing by the state may then be proposed as the answer; by issuing a license, it is sometimes said, people are assured that the doctor will be qualified, competent, and upright. The evidence from studies of licensure, of medicine and of other professions, however, shows quite the opposite. Whereas markets tend to generate gradations of certification, licensing is binary; you are licensed, or you are not. Moreover, it’s common in licensed professions that the license is revoked if the licensed professional engages in “unprofessional conduct,” which is usually defined as including advertising! But advertising is one of the means that markets have evolved to provide information– about the availability of products and services, about relative qualities, and about prices. Licensure is not the solution to cases of informational asymmetry; it is the cause.