Some distinct arguments in favour of free markets

What follows is a list of arguments in favour of free markets. I have made no attempt to critically analyse each argument, as my intention is merely to present and label various arguments so that I can refer to them at a later date.

It should be noted that many arguments in favour of free markets present markets in opposition to some alternative, usually something called ‘central planning’.  This opposition strikes me as a false dichotomy, as it is entirely possible to imagine a system that incorporates some elements of central planning with some elements of markets. In fact, we don’t have to imagine such a system because we actually live in one; the real world of economic activity is characterised by an intermingling of central planning (e.g. within firms and governments) and market systems (e.g. between firms, households, and sole traders).

Anyway, without further rambling, I present the arguments…

Markets as disciplined pluralism

In The Truth About Markets John Kay argues that what makes markets really useful is that they allow for what he calls ‘disciplined pluralism.’ Markets are pluralistic because they allow people to ‘propose’ different projects, usually in the form of business ventures. Markets are disciplined because if these business ventures provide goods or services that are not in demand then the business will fail, and the resources used by that business will be allocated elsewhere.

Kay distinguishes the disciplined pluralism of the markets with the lack of discipline and pluralism one often finds in government-controlled enterprises. Because governments wield a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, government-supported projects can survive long after they have been shown to be inadequate or wasteful. Kay illustrates this point with examples like Concorde and the British AGR nuclear power stations. Both of these ‘white elephant’ projects cost billions of pounds and survived long after a private company would have gone bankrupt.

Furthermore, Kay argues, governments tend not to be pluralistic; they encourage industries to speak in ‘one voice’, or simply ignore alternative viewpoints altogether, with the result that potentially good ideas are not given a fair hearing.

Disciplined pluralism means markets act as filters, allowing good ideas to pass through and spread, whilst suppressing bad ones. This pro-market argument explains how markets provide for dynamic efficiency in the form of innovation, invention, and technological progress. Good innovations are rewarded with increasing market share, and bad innovations are allowed to fail.

Markets as aggregators of tacit knowledge

‘Tacit knowledge’ or ‘tacit knowing’ is a theory introduced by the polymath Michael Polanyi. It denotes the idea that a great deal of our day-to-day knowledge is deeply personal, intuitive, and cannot be reduced to a set of written or spoken propositions. Friedrich Hayek applied this concept to economics, and argued that much economic activity relied on this kind of in-expressible knowledge; and for so no central planner could ever hope to co-ordinate economic activity, because the central planner could not express the commands necessary to instruct people to do what they needed to do.

Markets provide a solution to this problem. Individuals no longer have to communicate explicit instructions for everything every other individual has to do. Instead, individuals use the price mechanism of the markets to transmit information between themselves.

Markets as systems of co-operation

In The Market System Charles Lindblom characterises the market system as a tool that enables co-operation. This notion has something in common with the idea that markets aggregate tacit knowledge. I discussed Lindblom and his book in more detail in this post.

I suspect that this argument in favour of the market system can be collapsed into one of the other arguments, possibly the tact-knowledge aggregation argument or the decentralised optimisation argument.

In fact, this isn’t so much an argument in favour of markets as a description of what markets are for, without necessarily demonstrating that markets are superior to alternative means of co-operation. Lindblom is very clear that markets have both positive and negative characteristics.

Markets as decentralised optimisation systems

It is possible to show that, under certain highly restrictive conditions, market systems can achieve something called ‘static efficiency’, whereby scarce resources are, in some sense, allocated in an optimal fashion. The most complete expression of this view is to be found in Gerard Debreu’s Theory of Value.

I have yet to read Theory of Value, but I am reliably informed that it contains some elegant and beautiful mathematics; however it is not clear that the theories that Debreu presents has and relevance to the actually-existing economic world. Indeed, it seems that Debreu himself was at pains to point out that his theory had no real-world implications. In fact, it could be said that Theory of Value constitutes a negative result, essentially demonstrating that the conditions required for markets to achieve optimal results are so restrictive that they will never be met in practice.

Markets as revelation of democratic preference

I am vaguely aware that certain people argue that markets are tools for revealing the collective ‘will’ of diverse groups of people. Without wishing to burden this notion with more credence than it can support, I shall include this in the list, if only to ease future referral.


Capitalism vs. communism and markets vs. central planning

Reading the comments under this excellent article by Unlearning Economics, I am struck by the fact that most of the arguments in the capitalism vs. communism debate are let down by the two sides failing to lay out rigorous definitions from the outset. In order for a proper debate to take place, both sides must specify what they consider to be the necessary and sufficient conditions for an economy to be considered ‘communist’ or ‘capitalist.’

I have pointed out before that markets are not the same thing as capitalism; it would be useful now to note that central planning is not the same thing as communism. Historically, most so-called communist states have attempted to engage in central planning, rather than in market-based solutions to problems of resource allocation; but this does not mean that all conceivable communist states must necessarily engage in central planning.

I’ve just realised I used the phrase ‘so-called communist states’ in my previous paragraph; in doing so, I could be accused of ‘special pleading’, and claiming that ‘true communism’ has never existed. This wasn’t my intention, which was to highlight the fact that just because people give something a particular name doesn’t mean that the name is accurate or descriptive.

So what is communism?

I’m not entirely sure. I can think of several highly limited and unsatisfactory definitions off the top of my head. Marx himself was somewhat vague on the subject of exactly what communism would look like. This continuing vagueness is part of the problem; communism can mean lots of things to lots of different people, just like capitalism. All this just shows how important it is to lay out rigorous definitions at the outset.