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Some of What Market Skeptics Likely Think

In my latest column for AIER, I offer a list of what I suspect are many of the propositions that are taken for granted by many, and likely most, skeptics of the liberal market order. A slice:

As I understand reality — and, I’m sure, as most friends of AIER understand reality – the material and ethical benefits of free markets are so obvious and overwhelming that I can’t easily get my head around the enthusiasm that many people have for active government intervention into market processes. But I also understand this other piece of reality: my confidence in free markets, along with my leeriness of government intervention, puts me in a relatively tiny minority. Those of us who want to keep government small and strictly limited — and, hence, who want individuals to have very wide latitude to make whatever peaceful choices they wish in markets — are far outnumbered by individuals who distrust markets to deliver enough of the goods to enough of the people.

Why this distrust? What must sincere opponents of free markets have in mind to motivate their enthusiasm for replacing market processes with government commands? Here are my guesses as to some of what most sincere opponents of free markets have in mind.

  • The total amount of material wealth available to humanity is largely independent of human action and institutions.

Wealth just happens; it emerges automatically from nature or historical forces with little or no input from human beings. Human actions (and the institutions that govern it) determine only the distribution of this wealth, not its quantity or quality. It follows that if some individuals have more wealth than others, the reason can only be that wealthy individuals are simply lucky or, more likely, that they enjoy some unearned advantages over other individuals — advantages that allow them to grab unfairly large amounts of wealth.

Insofar as neither human action nor institutions have any notable effect on the total quantity of material wealth, tax rates and regulatory measures do nothing to diminish humanity’s stock of wealth. These measures affect only the distribution of nature’s bounty and not its amount.

  • Prices and wages are arbitrary, set by the powerful in opposition to the interests of the weak.

Because wealth is ‘produced’ independently of human action, prices and wages determine only how this wealth is shared among buyers and sellers and among employers and employees. High prices distribute more wealth to sellers and less to buyers, while low prices do the opposite. High wages distribute more wealth to workers and less to employers, while low wages do the opposite. Government control of prices and wages has almost no effect on wealth production; such control — or lack thereof — determines only the distribution of wealth among buyers and sellers. And so it follows that to oppose the likes of minimum-wage statutes is to support the interests of greedy employers at the expense of workers, while opposition to the use of price ceilings to prevent “price gouging” signals support of the interests of greedy merchants over those of consumers.

  • The profit motive is anti-social.

If the total amount of wealth is independent of human action, then the seeking of profit is the seeking of an unjustly large share of this wealth. To seek profit is to seek to rob one’s fellow human beings of their fair shares of wealth. Apologists for profit-seeking entrepreneurs and businesses are, thus, apologists for plunder. These apologists might be sincerely ignorant of the rapacious nature of profit-seeking, but this ignorance doesn’t excuse their carrying water for plunderers.

  • Commerce is anti-social because it is driven by the profit motive.

Because the profit motive is anti-social, anything that it motivates — such as commerce — is also anti-social. Commerce is a means by which the crafty, the devious, and the privileged gain at the expense of the credulous, the honest, and the oppressed.