Free market

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In economics, a free market is an economic system in which the prices of goods and services are determined by supply and demand expressed by sellers and buyers. Such markets, as modeled, operate without the intervention of government or any other external authority. Proponents of the free market as a normative ideal contrast it with a regulated market, in which a government intervenes in supply and demand by means of various methods such as taxes or regulations. In an idealized free market economy, prices for goods and services are set solely by the bids and offers of the participants.


Scholars contrast the concept of a free market with the concept of a coordinated market in fields of study such as political economy, new institutional economics, economic sociology, and political science. All of these fields emphasize the importance in currently existing market systems of rule-making institutions external to the simple forces of supply and demand which create space for those forces to operate to control productive output and distribution. Although free markets are commonly associated with capitalism in contemporary usage and popular culture, free markets have also been components in some forms of market socialism. [1]

Historically, free market has also been used synonymously with other economic policies. For instance proponents of laissez-faire capitalism may refer to it as free market capitalism because they claim it achieves the most economic freedom. [2] In practice, governments usually intervene to reduce externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions; although they may use markets to do so, such as carbon emission trading. [3]

Economic systems


Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. [4] [5] [6] [7] Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets, a price system, private property and the recognition of property rights, voluntary exchange, and wage labor. [8] [9] In a capitalist market economy, decision-making and investments are determined by every owner of wealth, property or production ability in capital and financial markets whereas prices and the distribution of goods and services are mainly determined by competition in goods and services markets. [10]

Economists, historians, political economists and sociologists have adopted different perspectives in their analyses of capitalism and have recognized various forms of it in practice. These include laissez-faire or free-market capitalism, state capitalism and welfare capitalism. Different forms of capitalism feature varying degrees of free markets, public ownership, [11] obstacles to free competition and state-sanctioned social policies. The degree of competition in markets and the role of intervention and regulation as well as the scope of state ownership vary across different models of capitalism. [12] [13] The extent to which different markets are free and the rules defining private property are matters of politics and policy. Most of the existing capitalist economies are mixed economies that combine elements of free markets with state intervention and in some cases economic planning. [14]

Market economies have existed under many forms of government and in many different times, places and cultures. Modern capitalist societies—marked by a universalization of money-based social relations, a consistently large and system-wide class of workers who must work for wages (the proletariat) and a capitalist class which owns the means of production—developed in Western Europe in a process that led to the Industrial Revolution. Capitalist systems with varying degrees of direct government intervention have since become dominant in the Western world and continue to spread. Capitalism has been shown to be strongly correlated with economic growth. [15]


For classical economists such as Adam Smith, the term free market refers to a market free from all forms of economic privilege, monopolies and artificial scarcities. [2] They say this implies that economic rents, which they describe as profits generated from a lack of perfect competition, must be reduced or eliminated as much as possible through free competition.

Economic theory suggests the returns to land and other natural resources are economic rents that cannot be reduced in such a way because of their perfect inelastic supply. [16] Some economic thinkers emphasize the need to share those rents as an essential requirement for a well functioning market. It is suggested this would both eliminate the need for regular taxes that have a negative effect on trade (see deadweight loss) as well as release land and resources that are speculated upon or monopolised, two features that improve the competition and free market mechanisms. Winston Churchill supported this view by the following statement: "Land is the mother of all monopoly". [17] The American economist and social philosopher Henry George, the most famous proponent of this thesis, wanted to accomplish this through a high land value tax that replaces all other taxes. [18] Followers of his ideas are often called Georgists or geoists and geolibertarians.

Léon Walras, one of the founders of the neoclassical economics who helped formulate the general equilibrium theory, had a very similar view. He 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. [19]


The laissez-faire principle expresses a preference for an absence of non-market pressures on prices and wages such as those from discriminatory government taxes, subsidies, tariffs, regulations, or government-granted monopolies. In The Pure Theory of Capital, Friedrich Hayek argued that the goal is the preservation of the unique information contained in the price itself. [20]

According to Karl Popper, the idea of the free market is paradoxical, as it requires interventions towards the goal of preventing interventions. [2]

Although laissez-faire has been commonly associated with capitalism, there is a similar economic theory associated with socialism called left-wing or socialist laissez-faire, also known as free-market anarchism, free-market anti-capitalism and free-market socialism to distinguish it from laissez-faire capitalism. [21] [22] [23] Critics of laissez-faire as commonly understood argue that a truly laissez-faire system would be anti-capitalist and socialist. [24] [25] American individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker saw themselves as economic free-market socialists and political individualists while arguing that their "anarchistic socialism" or "individual anarchism" was "consistent Manchesterism". [26]


Various forms of socialism based on 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. These economists believed that genuinely free markets and voluntary exchange could not exist within the exploitative conditions of capitalism. These proposals ranged from various forms of worker cooperatives operating in a free-market economy such as the mutualist system proposed by Proudhon, to state-owned enterprises operating in unregulated and open markets. These models of socialism are not to be confused with other forms of market socialism (e.g. the Lange model) where publicly owned enterprises are coordinated by various degrees of economic planning, or where capital good prices are determined through marginal cost pricing.

Advocates of free-market socialism such as Jaroslav Vanek argue that genuinely free markets are not possible under conditions of private ownership of productive property. Instead, he contends that the class differences and inequalities in income and power that result from private ownership enable the 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 legislate government policies that benefit their specific business interests. Additionally, Vanek states that workers in a socialist economy based on cooperative and self-managed enterprises 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 their fixed wage or salary. The stronger incentives to maximize productivity that he conceives as possible in a socialist economy based on cooperative and self-managed enterprises might be accomplished in a free-market economy if employee-owned companies were the norm as envisioned by various thinkers including Louis O. Kelso and James S. Albus. [27]

Socialists also assert that free-market capitalism leads to an excessively skewed distributions of income and economic instabilities which in turn leads to social instability. Corrective measures in the form of social welfare, re-distributive taxation and regulatory measures and their associated administrative costs which are required create agency costs for society. These costs would not be required in a self-managed socialist economy. [28]

Criticism of market socialism comes from two major directions. Economists Friedrich Hayek and George Stigler argued that socialism as a theory is not conducive to democratic systems [29] and even the most benevolent state would face serious implementation problems. [30]

More modern criticism of socialism and market socialism implies that even in a democratic system, socialism cannot reach the desired efficient outcome. This argument holds that democratic majority rule becomes detrimental to enterprises and industries, and that the formation of interest groups distorts the optimal market outcome. [31]


Economic equilibrium

A diagram showing the "effects of price freedom" FreePrice.JPG
A diagram showing the "effects of price freedom"

The general equilibrium theory has demonstrated that, under certain theoretical conditions of perfect competition, the law of supply and demand influences prices toward an equilibrium that balances the demands for the products against the supplies. [32] [ full citation needed ] 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.

Low barriers to entry

A free market does not directly require the existence of competition; however, it does require a framework that freely allows new market entrants. Hence, competition in a free market is a consequence of the conditions of a free market, including that market participants not be obstructed from following their profit motive.

Perfect competition and market failure

An absence of any of the conditions of perfect competition is considered a market failure. Regulatory intervention may provide a substitute force to counter a market failure, which leads some economists to believe that some forms of market regulation may be better than an unregulated market at providing a free market. [2]

Spontaneous order

Friedrich Hayek popularized the view that market economies promote spontaneous order which results in a better "allocation of societal resources than any design could achieve". [33] According to this view, market economies are characterized by the formation of complex transactional networks that produce and distribute goods and services throughout the economy. These networks are not designed, but they nevertheless emerge as a result of decentralized individual economic decisions. [34] The idea of spontaneous order is an elaboration on the invisible hand proposed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations . About the individual, Smith wrote:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. [35]

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, arguing:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. [36]

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, namely to enforce contracts, govern the formation of labor unions, spell out the rights and obligations of corporations, shape who has standing to bring legal actions and define what constitutes an unacceptable conflict of interest. [37]

Supply and demand

Demand for an item (such as a good or service) refers to the economic market pressure from people trying to buy it. Buyers have a maximum price they are willing to pay for an item, and sellers have a minimum price at which they are willing to offer their product. The point at which the supply and demand curves meet is the equilibrium price of the good and quantity demanded. Sellers willing to offer their goods at a lower price than the equilibrium price receive the difference as producer surplus. Buyers willing to pay for goods at a higher price than the equilibrium price receive the difference as consumer surplus. [38]

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 are businesses, which try to buy (demand) the type of labor they need at the lowest price. As more people offer their labor in that market, the equilibrium wage decreases and the equilibrium level of employment increases as the supply curve shifts to the right. The opposite happens if fewer people offer their wages in the market as the supply curve shifts to the left. [38]

In a free market, individuals and firms taking part in these transactions have the liberty to enter, leave and participate in the market as they so choose. Prices and quantities are allowed to adjust according to economic conditions in order to reach equilibrium and allocate resources. However, in many countries around the world governments seek to intervene in the free market in order to achieve certain social or political agendas. [39] Governments may attempt to create social equality or equality of outcome by intervening in the market through actions such as imposing a minimum wage (price floor) or erecting price controls (price ceiling).

Other lesser-known goals are also pursued, such as in the United States, where the federal government subsidizes owners of fertile land to not grow crops in order to prevent the supply curve from further shifting to the right and decreasing the equilibrium price. This is done under the justification of maintaining farmers' profits; due to the relative inelasticity of demand for crops, increased supply would lower the price but not significantly increase quantity demanded, thus placing pressure on farmers to exit the market. [40] Those interventions are often done in the name of maintaining basic assumptions of free markets such as the idea that the costs of production must be included in the price of goods. Pollution and depletion costs are sometimes not included in the cost of production (a manufacturer that withdraws water at one location then discharges it polluted downstream, avoiding the cost of treating the water), therefore governments may opt to impose regulations in an attempt to try to internalize all of the cost of production and ultimately include them in the price of the goods.

Advocates of the free market contend that government intervention hampers economic growth by disrupting the efficient allocation of resources according to supply and demand while critics of the free market contend that government intervention is sometimes necessary to protect a country's economy from better-developed and more influential economies, while providing the stability necessary for wise long-term investment. Milton Friedman argued against central planning, price controls and state-owned corporations, particularly as practiced in the Soviet Union and China [41] while Ha-Joon Chang cites the examples of post-war Japan and the growth of South Korea's steel industry as positive examples of government intervention. [42]



Critics of a laissez-faire free market have argued that in real world situations it has proven to be susceptible to the development of price fixing monopolies. [43] Such reasoning has led to government intervention, e.g. the United States antitrust law. Critics of the free market also argue that it results in significant market dominance, inequality of bargaining power, or information asymmetry, in order to allow markets to function more freely.

Critics of a free market often argue that some market failures require government intervention. [44] Economists Ronald Coase, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek have responded by arguing that markets can internalize or adjust to supposed market failures. [44]

Two prominent Canadian authors 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. [45] 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. [45]

Another form of market failure is speculation, where transactions are made to profit from short term fluctuation, rather from the intrinsic value of the companies or products. This criticism has been challenged by historians such as Lawrence Reed, who argued that monopolies have historically failed to form even in the absence of antitrust law. [46] [ unreliable source? ] This is because monopolies are inherently difficult to maintain as a company that tries to maintain its monopoly by buying out new competitors, for instance, is incentivizing newcomers to enter the market in hope of a buy-out. Furthermore, according to writer Walter Lippman and economist Milton Friedman, historical analysis of the formation of monopolies reveals that, contrary to popular belief, these were the result not of unfettered market forces, but of legal privileges granted by government. [47] [ unreliable source? ]

American philosopher and author Cornel West has derisively termed what he perceives as dogmatic arguments for laissez-faire economic policies as free-market fundamentalism. West has contended that such mentality "trivializes the concern for public interest" and "makes money-driven, poll-obsessed elected officials deferential to corporate goals of profit – often at the cost of the common good". [48] American political philosopher Michael J. Sandel contends that in the last thirty years the United States has moved beyond just having a market economy and has become a market society where literally everything is for sale, including aspects of social and civic life such as education, access to justice and political influence. [49] The economic historian Karl Polanyi was highly critical of the idea of the market-based society in his book The Great Transformation , stating that any attempt at its creation would undermine human society and the common good: [50] "Ultimately...the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society; it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system." [51]

David McNally of the University of Houston argues in the Marxist tradition that the logic of the market inherently produces inequitable outcomes and leads to unequal exchanges, arguing that Adam Smith's moral intent and moral philosophy espousing equal exchange was undermined by the practice of the free market he championed. According to McNally, the development of the market economy involved coercion, exploitation and violence that Smith's moral philosophy could not countenance. McNally also criticizes market socialists for believing in the possibility of fair markets based on equal exchanges to be achieved by purging parasitical elements from the market economy such as private ownership of the means of production, arguing that market socialism is an oxymoron when socialism is defined as an end to wage labour. [52]

Forced labor

King Leopold II of Belgium, known as the "Builder King" in Belgium for reigning during its industrialization, imposed forced labor on the inhabitants of the Congo to harvest rubber in response to worldwide demand for rubber in the free market for manufacturing tires. [53]

There have been societies with both a free market in some aspects and forced labor in others. For example, the Jim Crow Southern United States and Apartheid South Africa were capitalist societies that utilized forced labor, such as convict leasing [54] and pass laws, [55] respectively.

See also


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  5. Rosser, Mariana V.; Rosser, J Barkley (2003). Comparative Economics in a Transforming World Economy. MIT Press. p. 7. ISBN   978-0262182348. In capitalist economies, land and produced means of production (the capital stock) are owned by private individuals or groups of private individuals organized as firms.
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Further reading

Related Research Articles

Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets, price systems, private property, property rights recognition, voluntary exchange, and wage labor. In a market economy, decision-making and investments are determined by owners of wealth, property, or ability to maneuver capital or production ability in capital and financial markets—whereas prices and the distribution of goods and services are mainly determined by competition in goods and services markets.

Classical liberalism is a political tradition and a branch of liberalism that advocates free market and laissez-faire economics and civil liberties under the rule of law, with special emphasis on individual autonomy, limited government, economic freedom, political freedom and freedom of speech. Classical liberalism, contrary to liberal branches like social liberalism, looks more negatively on social policies, taxation and the state involvement in the lives of individuals, and it advocates deregulation.

The economic calculation problem is a criticism of using economic planning as a substitute for market-based allocation of the factors of production. It was first proposed by Ludwig von Mises in his 1920 article "Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth" and later expanded upon by Friedrich Hayek.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Market economy</span> Type of economic system

A market economy is an economic system in which the decisions regarding investment, production and distribution to the consumers are guided by the price signals created by the forces of supply and demand. The major characteristic of a market economy is the existence of factor markets that play a dominant role in the allocation of capital and the factors of production.

A mixed economy is an economic system that accepts both private businesses and nationalized government services, like public utilities, safety, military, welfare, and education. A mixed economy also promotes some form of regulation to protect the public, the environment, or the interests of the state.

Private property is a legal designation for the ownership of property by non-governmental legal entities. Private property is distinguishable from public property, which is owned by a state entity, and from collective or cooperative property, which is owned by one or more non-governmental entities.

Laissez-faire is a type of economic system in which transactions between private groups of people are free from any form of economic interventionism. As a system of thought, laissez-faire rests on the following axioms: "the individual is the basic unit in society, i.e., the standard of measurement in social calculus; the individual has a natural right to freedom; and the physical order of nature is a harmonious and self-regulating system." The original phrase was laissez faire, laissez passer, with the second part meaning "let (things) pass". It is generally attributed to Vincent de Gournay.

Economic interventionism, sometimes also called state interventionism, is an economic policy position favouring government intervention in the market process with the intention of correcting market failures and promoting the general welfare of the people. An economic intervention is an action taken by a government or international institution in a market economy in an effort to impact the economy beyond the basic regulation of fraud, enforcement of contracts, and provision of public goods and services. Economic intervention can be aimed at a variety of political or economic objectives, such as promoting economic growth, increasing employment, raising wages, raising or reducing prices, promoting income equality, managing the money supply and interest rates, increasing profits, or addressing market failures.

The social market economy, also called Rhine capitalism, Rhine-Alpine capitalism, the Rhenish model, and social capitalism, is a socioeconomic model combining a free-market capitalist economic system alongside social policies and enough regulation to establish both fair competition within the market and generally a welfare state. It is sometimes classified as a regulated market economy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Economic system</span> System of ownership, production, and exchange

An economic system, or economic order, is a system of production, resource allocation and distribution of goods and services within a society. It includes the combination of the various institutions, agencies, entities, decision-making processes, and patterns of consumption that comprise the economic structure of a given community.

<i>The Road to Serfdom</i> Book by Friedrich von Hayek

The Road to Serfdom is a book written between 1940 and 1943 by Austrian-British economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. Since its publication in 1944, The Road to Serfdom has been popular among liberal and conservative thinkers, and remains referenced in modern discourse. It has been translated into more than 20 languages and sold over two million copies. The book was first published in Britain by Routledge in March 1944, during World War II, and was quite popular, leading Hayek to call it "that unobtainable book", also due in part to wartime paper rationing. It was published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press in September 1944 and achieved great popularity. At the arrangement of editor Max Eastman, the American magazine Reader's Digest published an abridged version in April 1945, enabling The Road to Serfdom to reach a wider non-academic audience.

Spontaneous order, also named self-organization in the hard sciences, is the spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos. The term "self-organization" is more often used for physical changes and biological processes, while "spontaneous order" is typically used to describe the emergence of various kinds of social orders in human social networks from the behavior of a combination of self-interested individuals who are not intentionally trying to create order through planning. Proposed examples of systems which evolved through spontaneous order or self-organization include the evolution of life on Earth, language, crystal structure, the Internet, Wikipedia, and a free market economy.

The nature of capitalism is criticized by left-wing anarchists, who reject hierarchy and advocate stateless societies based on non-hierarchical voluntary associations. Anarchism is generally defined as the libertarian philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful as well as opposing authoritarianism, illegitimate authority and hierarchical organization in the conduct of human relations. Capitalism is generally considered by scholars to be an economic system that includes private ownership of the means of production, creation of goods or services for profit or income, the accumulation of capital, competitive markets, voluntary exchange and wage labor, which have generally been opposed by most anarchists historically. Since capitalism is variously defined by sources and there is no general consensus among scholars on the definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category, the designation is applied to a variety of historical cases, varying in time, geography, politics and culture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Criticism of socialism</span> Overview of criticism of an economic system and political ideology

Criticism of socialism is any critique of socialist economics and socialist models of organization and their feasibility, as well as the political and social implications of adopting such a system. Some critiques are not necessarily directed toward socialism as a system but rather toward the socialist movement, parties, or existing states. Some critics consider socialism to be a purely theoretical concept that should be criticized on theoretical grounds, such as in the economic calculation problem and the socialist calculation debate, while others hold that certain historical examples exist and that they can be criticized on practical grounds. Because there are many types of socialism, most critiques are focused on a specific type of socialism, that of the command economy and the experience of Soviet-type economies that may not apply to all forms of socialism as different models of socialism conflict with each other over questions of property ownership, economic coordination and how socialism is to be achieved. Critics of specific models of socialism might be advocates of a different type of socialism.

The Anglo-Saxon model is a regulated market-based economic model that emerged in the 1970s based on the Chicago school of economics, spearheaded in the 1980s in the United States by the economics of then President Ronald Reagan, and reinforced in the United Kingdom by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, its origins are said to date to the 18th century in the United Kingdom and the ideas of the classical economist Adam Smith.

An economic ideology is a set of views forming the basis of an ideology on how the economy should run. It differentiates itself from economic theory in being normative rather than just explanatory in its approach, whereas the aim of economic theories is to create accurate explanatory models to describe how an economy currently functions. However, the two are closely interrelated, as underlying economic ideology influences the methodology and theory employed in analysis. The diverse ideology and methodology of the 74 Nobel laureates in economics speaks to such interrelation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">The Use of Knowledge in Society</span> 1945 scholarly article by economist Friedrich Hayek

"The Use of Knowledge in Society" is a scholarly article written by economist Friedrich Hayek, first published in the September 1945 issue of The American Economic Review.

Economic liberalism is a political and economic ideology that supports a market economy based on individualism and private property in the means of production. Adam Smith is considered one of the primary initial writers on economic liberalism, and his writing is generally regarded as representing the economic expression of 19th-century liberalism up until the Great Depression and rise of Keynesianism in the 20th century. Historically, economic liberalism arose in response to feudalism and mercantilism.

Throughout modern history, a variety of perspectives on capitalism have evolved based on different schools of thought.

The socialist calculation debate, sometimes known as the economic calculation debate, was a discourse on the subject of how a socialist economy would perform economic calculation given the absence of the law of value, money, financial prices for capital goods and private ownership of the means of production. More specifically, the debate was centered on the application of economic planning for the allocation of the means of production as a substitute for capital markets and whether or not such an arrangement would be superior to capitalism in terms of efficiency and productivity.