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Free market

A free market is an economic system that allows supply and demand to regulate prices, wages, etc, without intervention by a government or price-setting by a monopoly.[1] Free markets contrast with controlled markets and regulated markets in which prices, supply or demand are subject to regulation or direct control by government.

Although in contemporary usage free markets are commonly associated with capitalism, free markets have been advocated by socialists and have been included in various different proposals for market socialism. These include proposals where market allocation of capital is combined with self-management in enterprises and employee-owned cooperative ownership, and models where publicly-owned enterprises operate in free markets.[2]



In the marketplace, the price of a good or service helps communicate consumer demand to producers and thus directs the allocation of resources toward satisfaction of consumers as well as investors. In a free market, the system of prices is the emergent result of a vast number of voluntary transactions, rather than of political decrees as in a controlled market. The freer the market, the more prices will reflect consumer habits and demands, and the more valuable the information in these prices are to all players in the economy. Through free competition between vendors for the provision of products and services, prices tend to decrease, and quality tends to increase.

The meaning of "free market" has varied over time and between economists, the ambiguous term "free" facilitating a diversity of uses. To illustrate the ambiguity: classical economists such as Adam Smith believed that an economy should be free of monopoly rents, while proponents of laissez faire believe that people should be free to form monopolies. In this article "free market" is largely identified with laissez faire, though alternative senses are discussed in this section and in criticism. The identification of the "free market" with "laissez faire" was notably used in the 1962 Capitalism and Freedom, by economist Milton Friedman, which is credited with popularizing this usage.[3]

Economic systems

Laissez-faire economics

The laissez faire principle expresses the preference for an absence of non-market pressures on prices such as those from government taxes, subsidies, tariffs, regulation (other than protection from coercion and theft), or government-granted or coercive monopolies. As developed in Hayek's The Pure Theory of Capital,[4] the goal is the preservation of the unique information contained in the price itself.

Socialist economics

Various forms of socialism based on, or which advocate, free markets have existed since the 19th century. Early notable socialist proponents of free-markets include Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Benjamin Tucker and the Ricardian socialists, who believed that genuinely free markets and voluntary exchange cannot exist within the exploitative conditions of capitalism.

These proposals ranged from various forms of worker cooperatives coordinated by free markets such as Mutualism (economic theory), to state-owned enterprises competing with each other in open and unregulated markets. These models of socialism are not to be confused with other forms of market socialism, such as the Lange model, where publicly owned enterprises are coordinated by a degree of economic planning in setting prices for capital goods.

L on Walras, one of the founders of the neoclassical school of economics who helped formulate the general equilibrium theory, argued that free competition could only be realized under conditions of state ownership of natural resources and land. Additionally, income taxes could be eliminated because the state would receive income to finance public services through owning such resources and enterprises.[5]

Advocates of free-market socialism, such as Jaroslav Vanek, argue that genuine free markets are not possible under conditions of private ownership over productive property because the class differences and inequalities in income and power that ensue from this arrangement enable interests of the dominant class to skew the market to their favor, either in the form of monopoly and market power, or by utilizing their wealth and resources to pass government regulations and policies that benefit their specific business interests.[6] Additionally, Vanek states that workers in a socialist economy based on cooperative and self-managed enterprises would have stronger incentives to maximize productivity because they would receive a share of the profits (based on the overall performance of their enterprise) in addition to receiving a fixed wage or salary. Similar outcomes could be accomplished in a capitalistic free market if the employee were to purchase stock of the company they work for.

Excessive disparities in income distribution emerging from private ownership are alleged by proponents of this system to lead to social instability that requires costly corrective measures in the form of social welfare and redistributive taxation and heavy administrative costs to administer them while weakening the incentive to work, inviting dishonesty and increasing the likelihood of tax evasion while reducing the overall efficiency of the market economy and necessitating government regulation over markets.[7]


Supply and demand

Supply and demand are always equal as they are the two sides of the same set of transactions, and discussions of "imbalances" are a muddled and indirect way of referring to price.[8] However, in an unmeasurable qualitative sense, demand for an item (such as goods or services) refers to the market pressure from people trying to buy it. They will "bid" money for the item, while in return sellers offer the item for money. When the bid matches the offer, a transaction can easily occur (even automatically, as in a typical stock market). In Western society, most shops and markets do not resemble the stock market, and there are significant costs and barriers to "shopping around" (comparison shopping).

The model is commonly applied to wages, in the market for labor. The typical roles of supplier and consumer are reversed. The suppliers are individuals, who try to sell (supply) their labor for the highest price. The consumers of labors are businesses, which try to buy (demand) the type of labor they need at the lowest price. As populations increase wages fall for any given unskilled or skilled labor supply. Conversely, wages tend to go up with a decrease in population.

When demand exceeds supply, suppliers can raise the price, but when supply exceeds demand, suppliers will have to decrease the price in order to make sales. Consumers who can afford the higher prices may still buy, but others may forgo the purchase altogether, demand a better price, buy a similar item, or shop elsewhere. As the price rises, suppliers may also choose to increase production, or more suppliers may enter the business.

Economic equilibrium

General equilibrium theory has demonstrated, with varying degrees of mathematical rigor over time, that under certain conditions of competition, the law of supply and demand predominates in this ideal free and competitive market, influencing prices toward an equilibrium that balances the demands for the products against the supplies.[9] At these equilibrium prices, the market distributes the products to the purchasers according to each purchaser's preference (or utility) for each product and within the relative limits of each buyer's purchasing power. This result is described as market efficiency, or more specifically a Pareto optimum.

This equilibrating behavior of free markets requires certain assumptions about their agents, collectively known as Perfect Competition, which therefore cannot be results of the market that they create. Among these assumptions are several which are impossible to fully achieve in a real market, such as complete information, interchangeable goods and services, and lack of market power. The question then is what approximations of these conditions guarantee approximations of market efficiency, and which failures in competition generate overall market failures. Several Nobel Prizes in Economics have been awarded for analyses of market failures due to asymmetric information.

Some models in econophysics[10] have shown that when agents are allowed to interact locally in a free market (i.e. their decisions depend not only on utility and purchasing power, but also on their peers' decisions), prices can become unstable and diverge from the equilibrium, often in an abrupt manner. The behavior of the free market is thus said to be scale sensitive (a pair of agents bargaining for a purchase will agree on a different price than 100 identical pairs of agents doing the identical purchase). Speculation bubbles and the type of herd behavior often observed in stock markets are quoted as real life examples of non-equilibrium price trends. Some laissez-faire free-market advocates, like Chicago school economists, often dismiss this endogenous theory, and blame external influences, such as weather, commodity prices, technological developments, and government meddling for non-equilibrium prices.

Low barriers to entry

A free market does not require the existence of competition, however it does require that there are no barriers to new market entrants. Hence, in the lack of coercive barriers it is generally understood that competition flourishes in a free-market environment. It often suggests the presence of the profit motive, although neither a profit motive or profit itself are necessary for a free market. All modern free markets are understood to include entrepreneurs, both individuals and businesses. Typically, a modern free market economy would include other features, such as a stock exchange and a financial services sector, but they do not define it.

Spontaneous order

Friedrich Hayek argues for the classical liberal view that market economies allow spontaneous order; that is, "a more efficient allocation of societal resources than any design could achieve."[11] According to this view, in market economies sophisticated business networks are formed which produce and distribute goods and services throughout the economy. This network was not designed, but emerged as a result of decentralized individual economic decisions. Supporters of the idea of spontaneous order trace their views to the concept of the invisible hand proposed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations who said that the individual who:

Smith pointed out that one does not get one's dinner by appealing to the brother-love of the butcher, the farmer or the baker. Rather one appeals to their self interest, and pays them for their labor.

Supporters of this view claim that spontaneous order is superior to any order that does not allow individuals to make their own choices of what to produce, what to buy, what to sell, and at what prices, due to the number and complexity of the factors involved. They further believe that any attempt to implement central planning will result in more disorder, or a less efficient production and distribution of goods and services.

Critics, such as political economist Karl Polanyi, question whether a spontaneously ordered market can exist, completely free of "distortions" of political policy; claiming that even the ostensibly freest markets require a state to exercise coercive power in some areas - to enforce contracts, to govern the formation of labor unions, to spell out the rights and obligations of corporations, to shape who has standing to bring legal actions, to define what constitutes an unacceptable conflict of interest, etc.[12]


Joshua Epstein and Robert Axtell have attempted to predict the properties of free markets empirically in the agent-based computer simulation "Sugarscape". They came to the conclusion that, under idealized conditions, free markets lead to a Pareto distribution of wealth.[10]

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, tried to identify the key factors necessary to measure the degree of freedom of economy of a particular country. In 1986 they introduced the Index of Economic Freedom, which is based on some fifty variables. This and other similar indices do not define a free market, but measure the degree to which a modern economy is free, meaning in most cases free of state intervention. The variables are divided into the following major groups:

  • Trade policy,
  • Fiscal burden of government,
  • Government intervention in the economy,
  • Monetary policy,
  • Capital flows and foreign investment,
  • Banking and finance,
  • Wages and prices,
  • Property rights,
  • Regulation, and
  • Informal market activity.

Each group is assigned a numerical value between 1 and 5; IEF is the arithmetical mean of the values, rounded to the hundredth. Initially, countries which were traditionally considered capitalistic received high ratings, but the method improved over time. Some economists, like Milton Friedman and other Laissez-faire economists have argued that there is a direct relationship between economic growth and economic freedom, and studies suggest this is true.[13] Continuous debates among scholars on methodological issues in empirical studies of the connection between economic freedom and economic growth still try to find out what is the relationship, if any.[14][15][16]


Some advocates of free market ideologies have criticized mainstream conceptions of the free market, arguing that a truly free market would not resemble the modern-day capitalist economy. For example, contemporary mutualist Kevin Carson argues in favor of "free market anti-capitalism." Carson has stated that "From Smith to Ricardo and Mill, classical liberalism was a revolutionary doctrine that attacked the privileges of the great landlords and the mercantile interests. Today, we see vulgar libertarians perverting free market rhetoric to defend the contemporary institution that most closely resembles, in terms of power and privilege, the landed oligarchies and mercantilists of the Old Regime: the giant corporation."[17]

Carson believes that a true free market society would be "[a] world in which... land and property [is] widely distributed, capital [is] freely available to laborers through mutual banks, productive technology [is] freely available in every country without patents, and every people [is] free to develop locally without colonial robbery..."[18]


Two prominent Canadian authors (both very hostile to the "Chicago School" philosophy) argue that government at times has to intervene to ensure competition in large and important industries. Naomi Klein illustrates this roughly in her work The Shock Doctrine and John Ralston Saul more humorously illustrates this through various examples in The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World.[19] While its supporters argue that only a free market can create healthy competition and therefore more business and reasonable prices, opponents say that a free market in its purest form may result in the opposite. According to Klein and Ralston, the merging of companies into giant corporations or the privatization of government-run industry and national assets often result in monopolies (or oligopolies) requiring government intervention to force competition and reasonable prices.[19]

Critics dispute the claim that in practice free markets create perfect competition, or even increase market competition over the long run. Whether the marketplace should be or is free is disputed; many assert that government intervention is necessary to remedy market failure that is held to be an inevitable result of absolute adherence to free market principles. These failures range from military services to roads, and some would argue, to health care. This is the central argument of those who argue for a mixed market, free at the base, but with government oversight to control social problems.

Critics of laissez-faire since Adam Smith[20] variously see the unregulated market as an impractical ideal or as a rhetorical device that puts the concepts of freedom and anti-protectionism at the service of vested wealthy interests, allowing them to attack labor laws and other protections of the working classes.[21]

Because no national economy in existence fully manifests the ideal of a free market as theorized by economists, some critics of the concept consider it to be a fantasy outside of the bounds of reality in a complex system with opposing interests and different distributions of wealth.

These critics range from those who reject markets entirely, in favour of a planned economy, such as that advocated by various Marxists, to those who wish to see market failures regulated to various degrees or supplemented by government interventions. For example, Keynesians support a role for government in providing corrective measures, such as use of fiscal policy for economy stimulus, when decisions in the private sector are believed to lead to suboptimal economic outcomes, such as depression or recession, which manifest in widespread hardship. Business cycle theory is used by Keynes to explain 'liquidity traps' by which underconsumption occurs, to argue for government intervention with central banking. Free market economists consider this credit-expansion as the cause of the business cycle in refutation of this Keynesian criticism.

Simulation of biological laws

The Red-billed Oxpecker feed on ticks off the impala's coat.

The free market is believed to self-regulate in the most efficient and just way. Adam Smith described this behavior with the metaphor of an invisible hand urging society towards prosperity.

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was appealing to some economists, sociologists and political scientists (most notably Walter Bagehot and William Graham Sumner) who adapted and rationalized the invisible hand by incorporating the popular idea of the survival of the fittest.[22] They proposed among others that in a fully competitive economic environment (as they thought was the case of ecosystems) the most potent individuals would thrive and in turn society would prosper (in analogy to the observed biodiversity and abundance of life on earth). Such arguments lead to the consolidation of neoliberalism and laissez-faire.

See also

  • Capitalism
  • Economic liberalism
  • Free trade
  • Black market
  • Grey market
  • Market socialism
  • Participatory economy
  • Quasi-market
  • Self-managed economy
  • Transparency (market)



External links

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