Written by Ian Fletcher
If there's one thing everyone in America knows, it's that free-market economics is true and free markets are best. After all, we're not communists, are we? They starved and lost the Cold War because they believed otherwise. And their watered-down European cousins the socialists? More of the same, only less so. Even liberals get this nowadays. All hail the free market!
Trouble is, things "everyone" knows are often wrong. And this is no exception.
It's time to start getting honest about a very simple fact: Nobody, but nobody, really believes in free markets. That's right. Not the Republican Party, not the libertarians, not the Wall Street Journal, nobody.
Here's why: a truly free market is a perfectly competitive market. Which means that whatever you have to sell in that market, so does your competition. Which means price war. Which means your price gets driven down. Which means little or no profit for you.
Naturally, businesses flee perfectly competitive markets like the plague. In fact, the fine art of doing so is a big part of what they teach in business schools.
That's why businesses use strategies like product differentiation, so their competition is no longer selling the exact same product they are. That's why they use strategies like branding, so their buyers don't think the products are the same.
Businesses will, in fact, do almost anything to get out of the hell of pure head-to-head competition.
They don't do it because they're crooked; they do it because they have an intrinsic economic incentive to. Always.
This is part of the innate essence of capitalism. It is not a flaw or a defect. It is part of what makes the whole system go. It is part of what makes capitalism capitalism.
People are the same way. Consider your own career. Why do you get paid more than the minimum wage? (I'm hoping you do.) Probably because you have some skill that everybody else doesn't have. So you don't have to bid against every unemployed person in your area to hold your job. Just a few of them. Which pushes your wage above the legal minimum.
That skill of yours is what economists call a "barrier to entry"—entry into the market for your job, that is. And if you're anything other than a damn fool, you'll cherish it like your very life.
I sure do.
Now let's consider the other side of the equation. We've looked at free markets in things you sell. Now let's consider free markets in things you buy.
Here everything gets turned around. If I'm buying something, I want the freest possible market in that product.
I don't, to take an example recently on my mind, want there to be only one market for live Christmas trees in my town. I want there to be two (or more), and right next to each other so I can easily comparison shop. And I want to shop for more-easily shippable goods on the Internet, if possible, where I can potentially find the lowest price in the entire world.
I want, in other words, every seller's nightmare. Which every smart seller will use every legal trick in the book to avoid.
As a result, nobody with any wits about them really believes in free markets. People believe in them when it's in their interest, but not when it's the other way around.
This is a systemic, structural condition, so anyone who tells you they believe in "free markets" is either lying, stupid, or hasn't thought the whole concept through properly.
The latter category is quite common. Many people do their thinking about political ideology in an entirely different—and dreamily disconnected—mental space than they use for managing real life.
Frankly, everyone I've ever met gets the truth well enough in practice, in their own personal life or in how they run their business, so I just don't believe anymore that anyone does believe in free markets.
Like any rational person, I'm open to counter-examples if anyone can show me any. But I've been asking around for a while on this, and haven't come up with much.
This is not just an esoteric point, still less yet one more example of the familiar fact that people are hypocrites in politics.
Here's why it matters. The political players in America today who claim to support free markets don't. They support free markets in the things their backers buy, but maximum barriers to entry in the things their backers sell.
For example, one of the great unnoticed achievements of the Republicans (and their Democrat collaborators) from Reagan onward has been to gut U.S. antitrust law. Having a monopoly, or a cozy oligopoly with friendly rivals, is one of the best barriers to entry around.
As recently documented in Barry Lynn's fine book Cornered: the New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, American industry is now concentrated as it hasn't been since before the era of Teddy Roosevelt and his trustbusters. (There's a different kind of Republican for you, by the way. These truths are not liberal or conservative.)
Most Americans don't realize this has happened because, unlike in the old days of Standard Oil, oligopolies today are cunning about masking their existence.
To take just one example, America's eyeglass frame industry is now dominated by the conglomerate Luxottica. That's why frames are so expensive. And any company, like Oakley the sunglass maker, that tries to break into the market? They find themselves shut out of a Luxottica-controlled distribution system. And retailers are now afraid to receive distribution from anyone else, lest they be cut off.
It's a remarkably well-oiled scheme, and it has its parallels in many other industries. But the average consumer has no idea about this, because the range of brands, if not suppliers, in optical shops remains diverse.
We're fat, dumb and happy. We've been fooled. But behind the smiling mask of a hundred labels smirks a single monopolist.
But aren't there laws against this sort of thing?
Well, there sure used to be, enforced by unsung lawyers and bureaucrats (horrors!) at the Justice and Commerce Departments. Whom nobody considered very glamorous, but who were doing the rest of us a big favor. Talk about forgotten wisdom!
Consider some other examples:
â€¢ Tyson in chicken
â€¢ Smithfield in ham
â€¢ Menu Foods in pet food
â€¢ Frito-Lay in chips
â€¢ InBev and MillerCoors in beer
â€¢ PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and NestlÃ© in bottled water
â€¢ Dickinson in medical devices
â€¢ Microsoft in operating systems
â€¢ Iron ore (three companies)
The number of problems caused by letting monopoly power—whose key consequence is known as "pricing power"—is astonishing.
For one thing, this is a huge part of what ails American farmers. Family farmers are caught between the agribusiness monopolies who push up the price of their inputs (feed, seed, fertilizer etc.) and the agribusiness monopolies who push down the price of their outputs. (The economists' term for the latter is "monopsony," with an "s," but it works the same way as monopoly.)
It's the perfect racket.
And it's no surprise that on the other side of the equation, "free" market politicians are very diligent in imposing genuinely free markets where this suits the interests of the multinational "American" corporations that fatten their campaign coffers.
This is done, of course, as a matter of high principle and sophisticated economic rationality. It's remarkably easy to make wonderful after-dinner speeches about free markets.
Let's start with labor. Post-Nixon Republicans have genuinely supported just about every policy designed to weaken the pricing power of labor. This starts with weakening unions and letting the inflation-adjusted minimum wage fall, but it doesn't end there.
You think Ronald Reagan got in 1986, and George W. Bush wanted in 2007, amnesties for illegal immigrants because they were nice, compassionate people? To ask the question is to answer it. Whatever the ultimate merits of amnesty as policy, for them it was about cheap labor, plain and simple.
The reality is that the past prosperity of America has never been based on pure free markets—starting with the fact that we had the highest average income in the world in 1776 because the colonies had structurally tight labor markets due to the open frontier. (Europeans and other Old World peoples were trapped by the iron law of wages because they had nowhere to go.)
Free, or nearly free, markets do have their rightful place in many parts of the economy, and it would be foolish to sabotage them. But in other areas—above all, in labor markets—our prosperity was based on pricing power.
A number of areas other than labor also worked better thanks to a healthy dose of pricing power. Try advanced technology, for a start. The patent system, which is not natural, is a fairly recent invention, and does not de facto exist even today in much of the world, is one. Innovation doesn't come cheap, and without pricing power for innovators, few companies could afford it.
Even the existence of scale economies, which are intrinsic to modern, large-scale, capital-intensive industry, implies markets that are less than free. Why? Because scale economies intrinsically imply a small number of large producers and thus give rise to oligopoly, with the consequences mentioned earlier.
This is why most other industrialized nations aren't romantics about free markets, are honest about their frequent nonexistence, and focus their policies on taming the negative effects of oligopoly while capturing the positive ones. They understand, for one thing, that big corporations are necessary but often pirates, and focus on making them share their loot with their crews.
We, on the other hand, live in a state of denial about the piracy.
So the next time someone tells you to believe in "free" markets, just tell them you'll believe as soon as they do.
When pigs fly.
Ian Fletcher is Senior Economist of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a nationwide grass-roots organization dedicated to fixing America’s trade policies and comprising representatives from business, agriculture, and labor. He was previously Research Fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a Washington think tank, and before that, an economist in private practice serving mainly hedge funds and private equity firms. Educated at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, he lives in San Francisco. He is the author of Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why.