Choice In Markets and Choice Under Government Compulsion

by Don Boudreaux on September 29, 2021

in Archived writings, Myths and Fallacies, Philosophy of Freedom

In my latest column for AIER I wonder why so many people who are quick to (mis)identify choice in markets as being unreal (and therefore the results of choices in markets as being illegitimate) are also quick to describe the ‘choice’ to obey government commands as real (and therefore the results of those ‘choices’ as being legitimate). A slice:

One accusation commonly hurled at those of us who advocate for free markets is that we mistake the mere formal availability of choice for the real availability of choice. A worker, it is said, of course has the formal right to quit his job, but this right is alleged to be meaningless in practice because the worker will suffer grievously if he chooses to quit. The worker, in other words, is alleged to be in extremis and, therefore, is being exploited by his employer who knows that this worker has no real option but to keep the job. Market outcomes are thereby alleged to be unjust and deserving of no deference because they are the result not of real choices but of choices made in extremis.

But if this reason for denouncing market outcomes is valid, then it applies with at least equal force to outcomes engineered by government. By putting individuals in extremis, government denies to them real choice. And if the possibility of finding another job is, as is said by market opponents, to be only an illusion of real choice and control over one’s fate, then so too, surely, is the possibility of a citizen affecting government policy by voting also an illusion of real choice and control over one’s fate.

I don’t have to explain to readers of this column that I reject the notion that market choices are made in extremis. These choices are, I believe, very real and meaningful. But it’s flabbergasting that many of the market opponents who denounce the market on the grounds that the choices it leaves open to individuals are not real – that these choices are largely made by people in extremis – look upon the outcomes of government coercion with such fondness and favor.

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