Myth: The more complex a social order is, the less it can rely on markets and the more it needs government direction

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 eighth myth — The More Complex a Social Order Is, the Less It Can Rely on Markets and the More It Needs Government Direction — 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: The More Complex a Social Order Is, the Less It Can Rely on Markets and the More It Needs Government Direction

Myth: Reliance on markets worked fine when society was less complicated, but with the tremendous growth of economic and social connections, government is necessary to direct and coordinate the actions of so many people.

If anything, the opposite is true. A simple social order, such as a band of hunters or gatherers, might be coordinated effectively by a leader with the power to compel obedience. But as social relations become more complex, reliance on voluntary market exchange becomes more — not less — important. A complex social order requires the coordination of more information than any mind or group of minds could master. Markets have evolved mechanisms to transmit information in a relatively low cost manner; prices encapsulate information about supply and demand in the form of units that are comparable among different goods and services, in ways that voluminous reports by government bureaucracies cannot. Moreover, prices translate across languages, social mores, and ethnic and religious divides and allow people to take advantage of the knowledge possessed by unknown persons thousands of miles away, with whom they will never have any other kind of relationship. The more complex an economy and society, the more important reliance on market mechanisms becomes.

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