The conditions of the idealized market model do describe ordinary retail markets, where there are plenty of restaurants, supermarkets, dry cleaners, and hardware stores, and consumers are competent to shop around for price and quality. They don’t accurately characterize the markets in health, education, labor, finance, or technological innovation, to name just five. (What is efficient about a hedge fund mogul taking home $2 billion, or a life-saving pill that retails for $5,000 a dose?)
To produce an economy that is more equitable as well as more efficient, government uses a variety of tools. It regulates to counteract market failure. It taxes to provide revenues to pay for public goods that markets under-provide at affordable prices—everything from education to health to research and development. Sometimes government passes laws to sustain other elements of a social contract, such as the laws protecting workers’ rights to form unions and to collectively bargain.
There is another, more fundamental point ignored by libertarians: The market itself is a creature of government. As Karl Polanyi famously wrote in a seeming oxymoron, “laissez-faire was planned.” Markets could not exist without states defining the terms of property ownership and commerce, creating money, enforcing contracts, protecting patents and trademarks, and providing basic public institutions. A Robinson Crusoe world never existed. So the real issue is not whether government “intrudes” on the market—the capitalist system is impossible without government. The practical question is whose interests the state serves.
A number of social scientists and journalists, such as Tom Frank (who is both) in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, keep wondering why working-class voters, especially whites, fail to vote their economic self-interest. In surprisingly large numbers, they support Republicans, who would remove the weakened social protections that remain, cut back Social Security and Medicare, make the tax code even more regressive, and make American workers even more vulnerable to low-wage competition from overseas. Frank blames the cultural conservatism of much of the white working class.
But there is a more disconcerting explanation. It has been a long time since government effectively did its job of tempering the market in the interest of ordinary people. A further problem of this blurring between the public and the private is that it adds great complexity. That makes regulations and government programs harder to administer, and diffuses blame when citizens find themselves frustrated with the result. Ultimately, the government tends to take the fall more than the market.
So if we are to win the argument with the libertarians, we need to take back effective government. Friedman was wrong to argue that the cure for market failure is more market. However, the cure for weak or corrupted democracy has to be more democracy. The only way to redeem public confidence in government as a necessary check on the market is to repair faith in democracy itself. It is not difficult to prove that the claim of market efficiency is delusional. Reclaiming our democracy will be harder—but it must be done.
More: The Libertarian Delusion