Many articles have recently appeared in magazines, web sites, and social media criticizing free markets and libertarian ideas. It seems to me that this opposition is a result of a growing interest in freedom as people realize that the economies of the world are in serious trouble. As people see continuing high unemployment, slow growth, ever greater government debt, environmental disaster, more turbulent weather, and endless wars, some folks seek solutions in greater freedom while others seek solutions in greater state control. The critics of libertarianism and economic freedom have fallen for several fallacies.
1. Critics confuse today’s mixed economies, a mixture of markets and government intervention, with a “free market.” A truly free market is an economy in which all activity is voluntary for all persons. Government intervention changes what people would otherwise voluntarily do. A pure market would not impose the taxation of labor and capital. It would not prohibit trade with Cuba. Free markets would not subsidize industry. Any peaceful and honest action would be free of restrictions and taxes. That is not the economy we have today in any country.
2. Critics use the term “capitalism” to falsely blame markets for economic trouble. Those opposed to private enterprise call today’s economies “capitalist.” They then note that the economy has trouble such as poverty, great inequality, unemployment, and recessions. The critics conclude that “capitalism” causes these problems. This illogic uses a sly change in meaning. They use the term “capitalism” as a label for the current economies and also to refer to free markets. It makes no sense to label the economy as XYZ and then say XYZ causes problems. The critics use the double meaning of “capitalism” to blame the non-existing free market for social problems. This confusion is often deliberate, as I have found that it is almost impossible to get the critics to replace their confusing use of the term “capitalism” with clearer terms such as either the “mixed economy” or the “pure market.”
3. Critics think that the “market” means “anything goes.” For example, they think that a free market allows unlimited pollution. They often call this, “unbridled capitalism.” But freedom stops at the limit of harm. In a pure market with property rights for all resources, pollution that crosses outside one’s own property is trespass and invasion. This violation of others’ property rights would require compensation, and that payment would limit pollution.
4. Critics confuse privatization with contracting out. They then blame private enterprise for problems such as occurs with private prisons. When government contracts with private firms to produce roads, it is still a governmental road. When governments hire private contractors to provide services in a war, it is still government’s war. Government sets the rules when firms do work under contract. Genuine privatization means transferring the whole ownership, financing, and operation to a private firm.
5. Critics overlook subsidies. Government distorts the economy with subsidies to agriculture, energy production, and other corporate welfare. The biggest subsidy is implicit: the greater land rent and land value generated by the public goods provided by government and financed mostly from taxes on labor and enterprise. Critics not only ignore this implicit subsidy but also overlook the explicit subsidies to agriculture and programs such as the promotion of ethanol from corn.
6. Critics do not understand the crowding out of private services because of government programs. The critics of libertarianism say that with less government, old folks and poor folks would starve and die because they would not receive social security and medical care. What they overlook is that the reason many of the elderly have little savings for retirement is that government took away half their income while they were working. Income taxes reduce their net wages, while sales taxes raise the cost of living. Low-income people pay little or no income tax, but they pay hefty sales and excise taxes, and they indirectly pay property taxes from their rental payments to landlords. Libertarians want to abolish poverty and have a society where all people have good medical care. They just want to accomplish this by letting workers keep their full pay, which would enable them to pay for their own medical services. Also, with no taxes on interest and dividend income, people would be better able to provide for their own retirement income, indeed to have much more than social security now provides.
7. Critics fail to understand contractual governance. A pure market would not consist of isolated individuals. Human beings have always lived in community associations. In a free market, communities such as condominiums, land trusts, and civic associations would provide the public goods that the members want.
8. The critics of market believe that corporations control the economy, exploit labor, and plunder the planet. Corporations do have power, but mainly because they obtain subsidies and monopoly privileges from governments. But labor unions and lawyers also lobby the government for power and favors. Rather than blaming private enterprise, the critics should examine how the structure of government enables special interest to obtain power and wealth.
Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1905 that nobody really argues with the economics and philosophy of Henry George and public revenue from land rent; the critics either misunderstand the concepts, or they create misinformation. The same applies to critics of libertarianism. The fact that the critics falsify the free market in criticizing it implies that the actual concept is sound, otherwise they would provide valid arguments.
Nobody has refuted the free market and the libertarian ethic of “live and let live”. The critics of liberty either misunderstand it or else falsify it. Even when their errors in logic, their false evidence, and their confused terminology are pointed out, the critics persist in their falsification. They are stubbornly anchored to their viewpoints. Why this is so is a problem I will leave to psychologists to figure out.