Students Ponder the Justice of Free Market System

A successful seminar in Austin

In the first week of June, FEE hosted a college seminar at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. The theme of the seminar surrounded the question, “Are Markets Just?” More than sixty students gathered to discuss free markets and the moral issues of inequality, injustice, exploitation, and the abuse of power.

Faculty included Dr. Colleen Haight, Associate Professor of economics at San Jose State University in California; Dr. Steven Horwitz, Professor of economics at St. Lawrence University in New York; Peter Jaworski, Professor of business ethics and Director of the Institute for Liberal Studies; and entrepreneur, Magatte Wade. 

Starting the seminar on a strong foot, Professor Jaworski answered the question, “Is Caring Enough?” He engaged the students and examined whether caring for people was enough to find solutions to everyday problems. He concluded that caring alone is not enough, but must be coupled with good intentions and effective and efficient actions.

The second day began with Dr. Haight speaking on “The Economist’s Toolbox,” giving an overview of what is needed for students to begin thinking like economists. She gave an introduction to economics, providing attendees with a framework for the rest of the seminar.

Following up, Dr. Horwitz talked to the students about “The Structures of Success,” which are the set of socially accepted rules that govern a community in order to have a successful free market. These include private property rights, which enable an entrepreneur to keep the fruits of their labor. Without this guarantee, entrepreneurs are less likely to take risks and start businesses. 

After lunch, Dr. Haight presented on “Community from Competition” and taught the students about self-interest, voluntary exchange, and specialization. These forces act together to create wealth in a community by allowing individuals to build businesses that compete to serve the community.

The afternoon continued with an all-faculty panel on “Thinking About the Tough Issues.” Each of the faculty members had some time to speak about the difficult questions and concerns regarding free markets, such as advertising. Are companies manipulating people into buying products they don’t need, or are they creating a market for a value that we have not yet recognized?

Concluding the second day, Dr. Horwitz talked about the “Politics of Anti-Poverty Programs,” making sure the students understood that the imperfections of a market system do not necessarily justify government intervention. He also related his talk back to the first talk of the seminar and concluded good intentions are not enough to solve the issue of poverty.

Dr. Horwitz started the third day with his talk on “Obstacles to Opportunity,” giving a broad overview of the government rules and regulations that prevent innovation and make the risk for entrepreneurs too steep. These regulations, such as minimum wage laws, actually harm the poor and decrease buying opportunities. 

After lunch, Dr. Haight talked about why “Fair Trade Isn’t Fair” and challenged the students to learn more about the products they buy. Fair trade coffee includes a premium paid by the consumer and, supposedly, given to the small, local grower. However, as Dr. Haight pointed out, the extra money almost never makes it to the grower, and goes instead to the co-op the coffee grower belongs to.

Magatte Wade, the seminar’s guest lecturer, spoke on “The Importance of Entrepreneurship.” Hailing from Senegal, her talk was a personal account of the importance of creating jobs by creating value within a community. She introduced the students to the Doing Business Ranking, a report that measures and compares business regulation for domestic companies in 189 economies.

Concluding the seminar, the professors talked about the “Virtues of Markets,” where each faculty member had the opportunity to speak on the ethical principles of markets, such as choice and freedom for individuals. This was followed by a question and answer faculty panel, giving the students a final chance to have their questions answered.

In addition to watching the lectures, students had the opportunity to learn about the benefits of free trade and the harmful effects of minimum wage laws through several hands-on activities. The minimum wage activity was presented by Vance Ginn, an economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Students also had time to engage in lively discussions, whether that was during free time on campus, meals, nightly socials, or structured discussion times.

“Are Markets Just?” was a tremendous success. Students learned how to think about social justice issues through the lens of markets, and many said their expectations of the seminar were greatly exceeded; they walked away inspired to learn more about — and use — economic thinking in their everyday lives.