The Castle of the Bulletin Board

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.