The Free Market: Eternally There


Mr. Zarbin is an assistant city editor at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

A recent passage caught my attention: "Though the free market is the most efficient allocator of scarce resources mankind has yet discovered, it is not a popular concept." The writer then suggested that "Its lack of popularity is probably due to a misunderstanding of the manner in which it works."

These should be words enough to provoke to thought any person who cares about freedom and its survival in a world that increasingly seems to embrace coercion or its threatened use as the answer to real and imaginary problems. I wish to limit my observation to two key points:

1.  I don’t believe mankind "discovered" the free market.

2.  I don’t believe the free market is unpopular because of a "misunderstanding" of how it works.

As to the first, the free market develops of its own accord in a society where government is limited to the safeguarding of life, liberty and property. The free market did not have to be discovered in the usual sense of the word. It does need to be recognized and it does need to be continually explained so its miracles can be understood and appreciated, but it didn’t require discovering.

It grew in these United States — and it will grow — of its own accord, without a specific design, because the framers of the rules of the American society established the conditions for the release of "creative energy" — as Leonard Read would say. These men, in their deliberations, did not direct that the economy follow any particular pattern, save that in not decreeing an economic plan they left the manufacture of goods and the growing of agricultural products, and their exchange, to the freely made choices of the men and women who produced them.

I repeat: the free market did not have to be discovered, but it does have to be recognized for what it is and it has to be explained. It is a marvelous, efficient, awesome mechanism that will meet the needs of this earth if the people have freedom.

Which leads to my second point: the free market doesn’t lack popularity because it is misunderstood. On the contrary, because it is understood it is unpopular.

I don’t mean that it is perfectly understood. Rather, I mean it is sufficiently understood so that numberless people want nothing to do with it (except reap its benefits while tearing it down).

I don’t know all the reasons people can come up with to disavow the free market; but the functioning of the free market demands self-reliance, self-discipline, self-responsibility, and self-restraint. The free market demands of each of us the necessity of work, of developing skills, of offering goods and services which other persons will willingly exchange for their own products and talents.

Results Not Guaranteed

The free market offers us the opportunity to get rich, or poor, in competition with everyone else. The free market doesn’t offer us special privileges, favors, subsidies, breaks, exemptions, monopolies, handouts. And it is this that accounts for the free market’s unpopularity.

People want their needs met with as little toil as possible. The free market doesn’t offer something for nothing. They have that much understanding of the free market, and that’s as far as many of them want to go in learning about it.

If the free market were perfectly understood, if all its benefits could be made more obvious, among some people it still would lack popularity. There is nothing that supporters of the free market can do to change these people. Our job is to learn as much as we can about the free market, to learn to explain it, and to try to make our findings available to any who want to share in them. If they are shared, perhaps some among those who dislike the free market will examine what it offers, change their opinions and become its supporters.

It is true that such persons may discover the free market, but it has been and is there eternally where men are free.  


October 1975

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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