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Freeman Essay #62: “The Will of the Market”

In the April 2001 Freeman I did my best to bust the myth – promoted by, among others, Thomas Frank – that the market has a will to which it bends people.  My column is below the fold.

Common to all intellectual assaults on liberty is groupthink. It’s easy to lose sight of each person’s indissoluble individuality—the root justification for liberty—when we speak and think in aggregates such as “the nation,” “society,” or “the market.”

These terms, by themselves, are unobjectionable. Indeed, they are shorthand often useful for economy and elegance of expression. But in the hands of careless or devious thinkers these terms too often are taken to refer to things mystical rather than real. In fact, nothing sentient in reality corresponds to the “the nation,” “society,” or “the market.” Nothing described by these terms has any ethical standing. These things aren’t real in the same way that individuals are real—nothing called a “nation” or “society” or “the market” has feelings, memories, plans, or wishes. No nation, or society, or market has ever desired or refused or rejoiced in or lamented anything. Emotions are experienced only by individuals; plans are formulated only by individuals; actions are carried out only by individuals.

To suppose otherwise is to impute life to labels; it is to treat these labels as if they were sentient creatures. It is, in short, to wallow in irrationality. And irrationality is, as it ever was, an enemy of sound thinking.

The Cato Institute’s Tom Palmer often quotes the late Parker T. Moon, who taught history at Columbia University, to make this vital point:

Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts . . . by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country—when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis”—we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead—thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?*

Moon’s point is undeniably true. And yet failure to grasp this straightforward truth continues to mislead scores of professors, pundits, and politicians.

Consider, for example, the claims of Thomas Frank, a budding hero of the left, whose new book criticizing capitalism, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, is drawing lots of attention. In a review he wrote in 1999 for The Atlantic Monthly, Frank asserted that “the market will not tolerate any sort of political activity beyond its very narrow spectrum of permissible beliefs” and that the United States is “a country in whose image markets quite naturally wish to remake the world.”

Overlook Frank’s wildly mistaken conclusions. Focus instead on his rhetoric and what it reveals about how he sees the world. He accuses the market of being a conscious thing—something with a mind and a will of its own—something that can be intolerant—something with wishes.

How ludicrous. The term “the market” is simply a label for the complex of countless voluntary interactions among millions upon millions of people. Each person, to the extent that he is free, chooses how to spend and save his resources and how to acquire more resources. The only constraints on a free man’s choices are those imposed by nature and the choices of his fellow free human beings.

Economics and history amply demonstrate that private property rights and the resulting free market channel people’s actions into those arenas that yield great benefit not only for the acting individual but also for untold numbers of his kin, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Indeed, almost every action on a free market benefits millions of strangers around the globe, anywhere the market touches.

Following Parker Moon’s example, we can profitably unpack assertions about what the market “does” or “wants.” For example, when Thomas Frank insists that “the market” wants to remake the world into an image of the United States, what he should say is something like the following:

When left free by government to spend their money as they wish, people around the world spend it very much as Americans spend their money. Non-Americans, when they break loose of the fetters of government regulation, choose to buy lots of Big Macs, shop at big-box retailers, frequent Starbucks coffee shops, go to Hollywood movies in giant cinemaplexes, and generally spend their money just as people in Anaheim, St. Louis, and Providence spend theirs. Moreover, entrepreneurs and corporations cater to these wishes. These consumer choices, and suppliers’ responses to them, will make places such as Paris, Bucharest, and Seoul culturally indistinguishable from places such as Oakland, Dallas, and Richmond.

There can be no question that the market does not generate most of the outcomes feared by Frank and other market critics. But even if it did—even if everyone around the world, when given freedom, would choose to eat only at KFC and shop only at Wal-Mart—these outcomes would be nothing more than the results of voluntary choices of free people.

No sentient creature plans market outcomes. No sentient creature could plan such outcomes. (Those who doubt this claim can consult Leonard Read’s classic essay “I, Pencil” for a brilliant explanation.) That’s one of the great benefits of the market: it denies to everyone the power to impose his or her will on others. When Thomas Frank and other market critics write about the market as if it had a will that is imposed on others, they have it precisely backward. Only through coercion can anyone impose his will on others. That’s why the state is so dangerous—and why the market is not.

*Parker Thomas Moon, Imperialism and World Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1928).


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