The Castle of the Bulletin Board
JANUARY 01, 1967 by GORDON BLEIL
Mr. Bleil is a San Francisco banker, via the University of Maryland with his M.B.A. in Finance from the University of Southern California.
Faith, like success, thrives on those real experiences which confirm and reinforce the belief. As an instructor of Economics to an evening adult class, I have constantly sought examples to confirm my faith in the free market — examples in which the students could participate. The ordinary bulletin board provided an almost perfect study of a free market contrasted with a controlled market.
Most of the supermarkets in this part of the world (California) —and I suppose almost everywhere — have bulletin boards for the convenience of their shoppers. Here, willing buyers and willing sellers meet in a unique market place. My wife and I have sold a boat, bought a cat, rented a garage, and located domestic help in this market. Most of my students had similar experiences, and all of them admitted to habitual shopping at the bulletin board market. We concluded that the bulletin boards were interesting, convenient, and effective. None of us had ever seen an offensive word or an impropriety of any kind. The sellers were often ingenious and imaginative in attracting attention, and somehow they managed to restore their messages if they were covered over by newer ones. Mysteriously, the notices disappeared when the sales were consummated. (When I went to rent the garage, I took the notice with me!)
This seemed to me to be an example of a really free market in operation — and I wondered how free it had to be to function. Some inquiry revealed that indeed a few of the stores required the manager’s approval for posting, or dating, so that old notices could be cleaned off periodically; but, by and large, rules as such were casual, flexible, and devoted to some nebulous standard of propriety, imprecise as it might be. It is clear that whatever rules of conduct were imposed on the participants, they were not so onerous as to restrict the market, but were practical enough to enhance its functioning.
Shortly after I had come to appreciate this unusual bulletin board market place, the company for which I work — and for which about one-half of my students worked — installed a bulletin board at one of the entrances to our cafeteria. An ideal spot, one would conclude, as hundreds of prospects flow past the point daily. However, after several months it was still virtually unused. At the close of class one evening, I asked the students to figure out — as homework — and report why the company bulletin board had not succeeded.
The students found the answer in the Official Rules of the Bulletin Board, conspicuously posted and appropriately signed by "an authority." "This bulletin board," it said, "is for your convenience. All notices will be submitted to Department X for approval." Special cards had been printed and Department X prepared all entries so they would be "uniform" and "proper."
Benevolent control of the market place had imposed so much authority on it that it ceased to function. It lost its appeal as a free market and was not able to attract willing sellers and willing buyers.
The class had made an important discovery. The Controller of the Bulletin Board was apparently less successful in discerning the reason for the failure of his market place, for a few weeks later another bulletin board was installed at the other entrance to the cafeteria. It, too, carries the "Rules" — and has been no more successful than the first.
I have wondered about the width of the line that divides an absolutely free market place without any rules from the point where the market essentially ceases to function. When does control become stifling? The answer, of course, does not exist. But when I see a bulletin board, I am reminded of the hazards of control, however well-intended they might be. My faith remains with the free market.