The Market Doesn't Solve Problems; People Do
by Louis Rouanet
It is wrongly accepted by many liberals (i.e., libertarians) that most, if not all, social problems can be “solved by the market.” But clearly, the “market” cannot magically solve our problems. Let it be clear that there is no doubt that the best way to have social progress is to have a free market economy. However, free markets are not solutions to problems, per se, but are rather what gives us the opportunity to find our own solutions to our own problems by finding the most valuable way to serve one another. For example, Frédéric Bastiat famously wrote in The Lawthat: “At whatever point of the scientific horizon I start from, I invariably come to the same thing — the solution of the social problem is in liberty.”
By speaking about the virtues of the market, we tend to forget that markets do not have virtues, only people do. As Murray Rothbardonce wrote, “it is overlooked that the ‘market’ is not some sort of living entity making good or bad decisions, but simply a label for individual persons and their voluntary interactions. … The ‘market’ is individual acting.”
The “What Should Government Do?” Bias
During each crisis, politicians and intellectuals systematically presume that “we should do something.” Thus, when liberals emphasize the importance of not violently intervening in the free market order because of the harmful, but yet unseen, consequences of state intervention, they are often accused of favoring inaction. This is a misconception of the liberal argument.
The free market is not superior because it offers solutions. It is superior because its basis is freedom, a freedom that is used by individuals to find new ways for them that are in harmony with the interests of their fellow men. Of course, there are many problems and abuses with the market, but entrepreneurs — if not prevented from entering the marketplace by governments — seek to solve these problems in the pursuit of profits. Through these entrepreneurs, the market is a process that tends to satisfy the most urgent, not-yet-satisfied, needs of the consumers.
To be clear, liberalism — used here to denote the philosophy oflaissez-faire — should not be considered as being the utopian opposite of socialism. It is not a magic recipe that guarantees perfect solutions at all times and for all things. Socialists like to imagine that liberals believe the market can cure every ill. In other words, they think liberalism is a mirror reflection of socialism. It is not. True liberalism does not promise perfection, it does not even promise a solution. There will always be problems. Our goal should be to find the best way to improve the situation, not to achieve an ideal world of fantasy.
When a social problem arises and somebody asks a liberal what must be done, he instinctively argues that “we” should free the markets, that “we” should liberalize, or that “we” should commit to deregulation.
But those proposals are not solutions to our problems at all, they are just a necessary step in the process of setting people free to solve problems. By pretending that “the market” is the solution that “we” should adopt, many liberals are victims of the top-down fallacy and deny the polycentric nature of markets. By calling “the market” a solution, we create the illusion that the free market is just another kind of government policy where the rulers offer us a solution. But the real solutions are offered by free individuals, by the free innovator, the free worker, the free capitalist, and the free entrepreneur.
Solutions to problems are not offered by the market, they are offered on the market.
As development economist William Easterly brilliantly writes:
Read more: mises.org
The “what should we do?” industry does not show any signs of going out of business soon. It gives us public intellectuals something to do and it gives politicians something to recommend. Much more positively, it does engage the very welcome idealism of altruists who want to make the world a better place. But the Sustainable Development Goals may be the best demonstration yet that action plans don’t necessarily lead to action, “we” are not necessarily the right ones to act, and that there are alternative routes to progress. Global progress has a lot more to do with the advocacy of the ideal of human freedom than with action plans.Thus, free markets are a sort of meta-solution. They are the solution to the problem of finding solutions. And it is striking that liberalism might be the only political philosophy that does not have a blueprint for an ideal society.
Read more: mises.org