The standard free market analysis places the individual at its center. As Adam Smith famously noted in 1776, although they act in their own self interest, an individual in a free market is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” And it is generally argued that competition is the driving force behind the benefits of the market process. Entrepreneurs constantly search for new opportunities to make profit, and as a result they find more efficient ways to provide goods to consumers.
Phrased in this way, the free market argument tends to evoke images of Social Darwinism – the best rise to the top, and the weak are left behind. Competition implies a constant struggle between market participants to seek their own benefit at the expense of others. This vision often leads critics to argue that the free market ideal generates an uncaring society. If everybody acts only in their own self interest, there is no room for cooperative behavior that is essential for human interaction. Morality, emotion, personal connections – none of it matters. The free market places “profit over people.”
This critique stems from a wildly incorrect reading of the free market argument.
Go back to Adam Smith. At the center of his work is the idea of division of labor. A market economy thrives not because individuals work in isolation. Instead, it depends entirely on the relationships between individuals, focusing each person’s talents on an activity where they possess a comparative advantage.
Perhaps the best illustration of the role of cooperation in a market economy is Leonard Read’s famous essay I, Pencil (there is also an excellent video inspired by the essay). Read points out that no individual on their own knows how to make even something as simple as a pencil. The production process requires dozens of firms and hundreds of workers each performing specialized tasks with little knowledge of the final product. There is no planner describing how to make a pencil and yet through the actions of individuals as well as the interactions between individuals, the production process arises spontaneously. An individual acting alone would quickly fail in a market economy.
Ludwig von Mises’s famous treatise Human Action, a comprehensive analysis of the working of the free market system, was almost given a different title: Social Cooperation. Although Mises dropped this alternate title, the theme that markets depend as much on cooperation between individuals as they do on individual action itself runs throughout the book. Mises notes:
Within the frame of social cooperation there can emerge between members of society feelings of sympathy and friendship and a sense of belonging together. These feelings are the source of man’s most delightful and most sublime experiences. They are the most precious adornment of life; they lift the animal species man to the heights of a really human existence.
Human Action p. 144
A free market, in Mises’s view, doesn’t destroy relationships between individuals, but instead fosters these feelings. Even if we take the idea of “Social Darwinism” seriously, even if we admit that all individuals are driven by the desire to fight for their own survival, that doesn’t lead us to a world of selfishness (in a narrow sense) because “the most adequate means of improving his condition is social cooperation and the division of labor” (Human Action, p. 176).
But the argument that markets and morals are inconsistent faces an even deeper flaw. In a market economy we have a choice. Of course we can choose to think only of ourselves, to put money over family, to value material goods over relationships. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the free market itself. Nothing in the market argument says that I should only care about wealth. If you want to put other priorities first, nobody in a free market has any right to stop you (the catch is that you also don’t have any right to make other people pay you).
A free market doesn’t place any moral judgement on the actions of individuals. It is perfectly consistent with both a savage society where everybody fights for their narrow self interest and ignores others as well as a responsible one where we care for our fellow humans. It is up to each of us as individuals to choose to live our lives morally (but of course, this choice is only an illusion).
What is the alternative? The only clear alternative I can see is to use the state to try to impose your morals on others. By enacting laws that force people to behave morally, maybe we can create a more caring society.
Such a system seems doomed to have the opposite effect. Let’s say you believe that redistribution of wealth is important. Poor people aren’t poor because they didn’t work hard. They just had bad luck. It’s the responsibility of the rich to help these people out. I am sympathetic to this reasoning. However, by forcing people to give up their wealth through taxation, we change the equation from one of responsibility to one of coercion. Rather than giving to the poor out of some sense of moral duty, I give because I don’t want to go to jail. Is attempting to legislate morality in this way more likely to generate a caring society or a resentful one? Respect between classes, or class warfare?
The free market argument should not marry itself to the individual. It is true that all actions must at their core come from individual decisions, but the market only works through the relationships between individuals. Human Action is only half of the story. Social Cooperation is equally important. By obscuring this fact, defenders of markets concede too much. Emphasizing efficiency and the incredible material progress society has made since adopting a market system is fine, but we can’t ignore the moral argument. Morality can’t be imposed. It has to be a choice. And only a free society offers that choice. “Liberty is an opportunity for doing good, but this is so only when it is also an opportunity for doing wrong” (Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p. 142).