Unicorns, Tooth Fairies, and Free Markets

The most frequent criticism of free markets lies in their comparison to unicorns, fairies, and leprechauns. In other words, they exist only in our imaginations and thus are unworthy of serious discussion. This is sheer nonsense. It is like denying the value of Plato’s ideal forms as a means of comparison and judgment. Democracy also does not exist in its pure, idealistic form, so, is it a useless figment of our imaginations? I don’t believe so.

Free markets should be thought of as markets for free people, much like democracy is a political market for free people. In terms of exchange, people are free when buyer and seller can either mutually agree on an exchange or walk away. This freedom obtains best when there are lots of competing and comparable alternatives to any particular good or service. Also, voluntary action is enhanced when the terms of the transaction are transparent to both parties. Some markets offer better and more options than others, while some are more transparent than others, so markets are defined along a continuum from “free” to “unfree.” The whole thrust of free market theory is to point us in the right direction.

Oddly enough, the failure of unfree, or controlled, markets is often cited as proof that markets don’t work. This is like pulling the wheels off my car and then stating that since it can’t go anywhere, cars are a poor form of transportation. Such arguments should be the butt of jokes, not serious debate. Some may qualify this argument by saying some markets are easier to manipulate or control by narrow interests or are less transparent, and thus need to be regulated by a disinterested third party such as a government bureaucracy. But that just begs the more important question over what means will insure that any particular market becomes freer?

Regulation vs. Competition

We can’t really answer this question without a careful analysis of behavioral incentives, of both the economic and political variety. It is widely accepted that economic and political actors pursue their narrow self-interests, with economic behavior determined by loss aversion and profit/utility maximization and political behavior more influenced by power, status, and control. These behaviors dovetail in real people as we all seek to survive by pursuing wealth, power, and control over our own destinies. When we scrape beneath the surface we find that survival is more about not losing (loss aversion), than winning (big rewards).

We would assume from these incentives that most actors would like to manipulate markets to their personal advantage, so how do we constrain or redirect this?

Most people would look to contract law as the explanation for what keeps us honest, but that offers only a narrow understanding of how markets work. We make dozens, if not hundreds, of market transactions every day and very few ever reach that threshold where we feel the need to consult legal counsel or call our Congressperson in Washington. Instead, we rely on more efficient means, such as trust, reciprocity, the implicit value of repeat business, and competing alternatives to guide our choices.

This point about competing alternatives is crucial because while trust, reciprocity, and relationships help ameliorate the need for transparency, competition gives us freedom of choice. Anti-competitive monopolies are considered economic evils because they control the market for their product or service, so consumers must pay their price or go without. (Likewise why we despise political tyranny.) Critics often deride market capitalism as a competitive conflictual system, but that too is a myopic point of view. Markets foster cooperation as much as competition, and many of the transactions in economic markets are win-win positive sum games rather than win-lose zero-sum games.

Think about it: Sellers compete among themselves in order to develop a long-term cooperative relationship with their buyers and suppliers. Ever wonder why a department store takes back that dress or pair of shoes you bought last week because you changed your mind? That doesn’t seem in their immediate profit interest, but it does when you consider how the retailer values repeat business against the freedom you have to take your business elsewhere.

It is not laws or regulatory watchdogs but open competition under accepted market rules that constrains most of our selfish economic behavior. In addition, market competitors have the biggest incentive to insure all play by the established rules, thus they are the watchdogs. This implies the need for transparency. Third party regulatory agencies are inadequate to the task of monitoring the multitude of transactions in markets, especially financial markets. For example, the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the US, and yet the financial crisis of “too big to fail” revealed how ineffective that regulation was. So the test should not be regulation OR competition, but regulation FOR competition. Financial markets in particular need to be open, transparent, and competitive to constrain behavior that risks the integrity of the financial system. In financial markets, failure is a big inducement for prudence.

For an illustrative case, consider the policy response to the financial crisis of 2008, the 2010 Dodd-Frank law. Under that legislation, “too big to fail” banks have gotten even bigger, while 1,500 community banks—the source of half of all loans to local businesses—reportedly have been destroyed. The remaining community banks have had to hire 50% more compliance staff just to keep up with the regulations. That means far less competition among lenders to serve borrowers and more concentrated finance that does not respond to the bankruptcy constraint. It means a far less efficient and just credit market and far more control centralized in a financial oligopoly seeking to influence the policymaking process in its favor. According to the practice of regulatory capture – where lobbyists “buy” politicians with campaign contributions to formulate policy to constrain their competitors – we’ve discovered too often that big government mostly works for big business, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected to the detriment of open and honest competition among free people.

One could make the same argument against health care reform under the Affordable Care Act. Has policy made the market more open, transparent, and competitive, or less? Health care provision is really about competition and abundance in the supply of health care rather than the price and distribution of access. With an abundance of competitive health care providers, price and access take care of themselves.

The most important argument in favor of markets is the crucial role they play in providing information feedback signals. Free markets provide the most accurate and essential signals to consumers and producers needed to make efficient economic decisions, like comparing alternatives to maximize preferences, or where to invest and how much to produce, and how to adapt to changing market conditions. These signals are embodied in prices and inventory quantities and without these, producers are operating in the dark about what people want. Hayek was the first to point out the lack of private exchange markets would make central planning under socialism untenable over time. He was right.

Market failures do exist and we don’t live in a world of idealized free markets. But in addressing those failures we should strive not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, because free markets support free people and that’s the bottom line.

Besides, it would be heartbreaking to admit to our children that this is best we can do when it comes to unicorns and tooth fairies:

adult-unicorn-costume toothfairy1