Myth: Markets don’t work in developing countries


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 ninth myth — Markets Don’t Work in Developing Countries — 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 Don’t Work in Developing Countries

Myth:Markets work well in countries with well developed infrastructures and legal systems, but in their absence developing countries simply cannot afford recourse to markets. In such cases, state direction is necessary, at least until a highly developed infrastructure and legal system is developed that could allow room for markets to function.

Tom G. Palmer: In general, infrastructure development is a feature of the wealth accumulated through markets, not a condition for markets to exist, and the failure of a legal system is a reason why markets are underdeveloped, but that failure is a powerful reason to reform the legal system so it could provide the foundation for the development of markets, not to postpone legal reform and market development. The only way to achieve the wealth of developed countries is to create the legal and institutional foundations for markets so that entrepreneurs, consumers, investors, and workers can freely cooperate to create wealth.

All currently wealthy countries were once very poor, some within living memory. What needs explanation is not poverty, which is the natural state of mankind, but wealth. Wealth has to be created and the best way to ensure that wealth is created is to generate the incentives for people to do so. No system better than the free market, based on well defined and legally secure property rights and legal institutions to facilitate exchange, has ever been discovered for generating incentives for wealth creation. There is one path out of poverty, and that is the path of wealth creation through the free market. The term “developing nation” is frequently misapplied when it is applied to nations whose governments have rejected markets in favor of central planning, state ownership, mercantilism, protectionism, and special privileges. Such nations are not, in fact, developing at all. The nations that are developing, whether starting from relatively wealthy or relatively impoverished positions, are those that have created legal institutions of property and contract, freed markets, and limited the powers, the budget, and the reach of the state power.


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