Ed: This essay has several parts which we’ll publish as a series in the coming days.
Because they have the word free in them, the terms “Free markets” and “Free trade” have seduced those of all political colours to treat them uncritically as ideas. They are considered good or bad but their intellectual coherence is rarely questioned.
Neo-liberals believe in a childlike quasi-religious fashion in the workings of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, which, moved by enlightened self-interest, supposedly creates the best of all possible material worlds through the operation of the market. Socialists see “free markets” and “free trade” as economic “state of natures” which must be ameliorated by the state before a civilised society can be realised. Conservatives in the traditional sense no longer exist as a recognisable political force in the West, but when they did exist they opposed “free markets” and “free trade” primarily on the grounds of national security and the general disruption to society that they caused. Nationalists of the fascistic kind have traditionally opposed the ideas because they see the nation as a single organism which can only be strong if it is master of its own destiny, something which can only be achieved (they believe) through state direction of both the internal market and of external trade.
There are varying quantities of truth in all these ideological responses, but their utility is seriously tainted by the lack of any objective or even properly defined and permanent prescriptive truth in the concepts of “free markets” or “free trade”. The reality of these ideas is that they are arbitrary chosen bundles of behaviours which are excluded or included at the will of their proponents. Moreover, the bundles of behaviours are not static.
The widespread negligence in examining the coherence of these ideas is all the more remarkable because their incoherence as theories and the arbitrary and dishonest nature of their practical realisation is not only readily apparent but fundamentally undermining of the claims made for them by their champions.
The “Free Market” is a state-regulated market
There is a splendid irony in the objection of the self-defined “free marketeers’” and “free traders” to state intervention for the natural end of a truly free market is monopoly – or at least greatly reduced competition resulting in oligopoly and the rule of cartels. All so-called “free market” societies recognise this by passing anti-monopoly laws.
The “free market” is in fact a market controlled by the state in the most fundamental way, that is, to prevent its natural workings. It is one of the great propaganda triumphs of history that “free markets” have been successfully sold as being what happens naturally without state intervention. Call a spade a spade and substitute the truthful “state regulated non-monopolistic market” for “free market” and the psychological shape of the idea changes dramatically. (Some casuistical “free marketeers” might argue that the “free” in free market applies to the workings of the market rather than the market as a natural phenomenon.
That explanation falls because “free marketeers” invariably make the blanket claim that markets only work efficiently without government interference. Their honest position would be to state that they want state regulated markets to prevent monopoly. They will not do that because it would be an acknowledgement that state regulation of the market is legitimate and hence remove any general argument against regulation. That in turn would mean any form of state regulation would be potentially reasonable and consequently, each form of regulation would have to be argued down individually on the merits of the case, rather than simply empty-headedly dismissed on the grounds of no regulation = good; regulation = bad.
The state regulated “Free Market” is not even a natural phenomenon made somewhat artificial by rules to exaggerate the natural phenomenon in the same way that we breed animals to exaggerate nature. Rather it is just about as far from being a natural phenomenon as anything can be for it goes against all Man’s inclinations, both individual and social.
Economic history is overwhelmingly a catalogue of market regulation, local and national, from guilds to governments. It would be surprising if it were not because human beings, like all other organisms, naturally behave to secure their own advantage or that of their group. Extended to the nation state, this natural behaviour has commonly resulted in domestic markets being protected against foreign competition. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is another matter – a question I shall deal with later – all I am concerned to do at this point is to nail down that the fact that protectionist behaviour is what is natural.
To be continued tomorrow