The world is threatened with a renewed wave of anti-capitalism and anti-business sentiments and policies. Many who cheered the demise of Soviet communism in the early 1990s, presumed that this meant that, by default, the case for free markets and competitive enterprise had won in the battle of ideas. Over the last twenty-five years it has become clear that the same misguided arguments against free market capitalism constantly reemerge, like an ideological vampire waiting to rise from the intellectual grave and drain market freedom of its lifeblood by more government regulations and controls.
One of the most persistent of these misguided ideas is the belief that left on its own, competitive markets tend to bring about concentration of wealth, inequality of income, and “market power” to exploit workers and consumers of what justly should be theirs.
The most recent example of this is an article on, “Monopoly’s New Era,” by Joseph E. Stiglitz, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in economics, which appeared on Project Syndicate website on May 13, 2016. Professor Stiglitz is one of those thinkers who seem to see a “market failure” at every turn and apparently has rarely found a government intervention he did not like.
Two Ways of Looking at the Market Process
He contrasts two differing views of the market economy. One view, an outgrowth of Adam Smith and those who followed in his intellectual footsteps over the last 250 years, argue that freedom, prosperity, and income equity are generally assured wherever the market is kept open and competitive, with minimal government impediments.
The other “school of thought” that he interestingly identifies with no one particular thinker of the past “takes as its starting point ‘power,’ including the ability to exercise monopoly control or, in labor markets, to assert authority over workers,” Stiglitz explains. “Scholars in this area have focused on what gives rise to power, how it is maintained and strengthened, and other features that may prevent markets from being competitive. Work on exploitation arising from asymmetries of information is an important example.”
Professor Stiglitz insists that this second approach has shown its insight and efficacy in the clear evidence of concentration of market control and income inequality in such sectors of the market such as finance and banking, cable television, health care, pharmaceuticals, agro-business, and a variety of others.
The truth and reality of this concentration of power and wealth conception of capitalism, Stiglitz argues, is also shown, historically, in labor markets, to the disadvantage of many “minority” groups. “Of course, historically, the oppression of large groups – slaves, women, and minorities of various types – are obvious instances where inequalities are the result of [market] power relationships,” he states.
His conclusion, therefore, should not be surprising. If competitive capitalism leads to it’s opposite – concentrated, monopoly capitalism – then government regulation and control is essential to preserve a free, prosperous, and “socially just” society. Or in the words with which Professor Stiglitz concludes his article: “But if markets are based on exploitation, the rationale for laissez‐faire disappears. Indeed, in that case, the battle against entrenched power is not only a battle for democracy; it is also a battle for efficiency and shared prosperity.”
Karl Marx’s Theory of Worker Exploitation
The nineteenth century economist most famous for insisting that capitalism leads to concentration, monopoly and exploitation was, of course, Karl Marx. He is the leading thinker that Stiglitz avoids mentioning by name. Marx claimed to have unearthed “the laws of historical evolution” that by a necessity as irresistible as the physical laws of nature, place human history on a trajectory that transformed society from feudalism to capitalism and would have to culminate in the triumph of socialism and a post-scarcity world of communism.
Marx was insistent that businessmen are driven in the pursuit of profits to invest in laborsaving industrial machinery. This results in two consequences. First, in this competitive race for profits through industrialization, some private enterprisers would be driven to the wall and pushed out of business, with their companies bought up by those capitalists who had better weathered the market storm. As this process repeated itself, there would be fewer and fewer private enterprisers left standing, with the result of the private ownership of businesses remaining in fewer and fewer hands. Hence, market competition leads to the concentration of ownership and wealth in the hands of a diminishing number of enterprise owners, according to Marx.
Second, as machines replace workers, there are fewer and fewer jobs for all those needing employment to feed themselves and their families. The non-property owning workers – “the proletariat,” in Marxian jargon – are joined by the businessmen driven out of business due to that concentration of ownership and wealth.
Workers competing for a decreasing number of jobs bring about a lowering of wages and decreased living standards for the vast majority of the population. Thus, a growing material inequality emerges between most working members of society and the handful of property-owning wealthy capitalists, or as it has become fashionable to describe them nowadays, the “one percent.”
Finally, in the Marxian version of this theory, the workers rise up and overthrow the remaining handful of exploiting capitalists, and the new dawn of historical progressivism arrives: socialism, with the State owning, managing and centrally planning the resources and enterprises of the society in the name of “the people.”
Marx’s Errors and the Benefits from Classical Liberal Capitalism
Both economic theory and the actual events of economic history have shown the errors and absurdities in this and related theories over the last two hundred years. Rather than a bi-polar social world of a handful of “the rich” versus a human mass of “the poor,” industrial and financial capitalism saw the emergence of what has become known as “the middle class,” whose numbers came from the ranks of the poverty-ridden poor of the pre-capitalist era.
The political philosophy of classical liberalism that gained intellectual ground in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries called for the end to absolute monarchy and the establishment of representative, but constitutionally limited government. It espoused the cause of ending the governmental privileges and favors bestowed on a narrow group of special interest groups surrounding and serving the king, including legal monopolies that prevented market competition.
Classical liberalism called for the end to slavery, the emancipation of women, and an equality of individual rights for all in society to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property before an unbiased and impartial rule of law.
Domestic and international trade barriers were reduced or abolished, opening the field to virtually unrestricted free market competition. A smaller and far less intrusive government brought about a lowered tax burden on all in the society, leaving more of the earned wealth by all in the hands of the private individuals whose efforts and energies had produced it.
Respect and enforcement of private property rights; competitive markets open to all those with entrepreneurial visions of how to manufacture and sell more, better and less expensive goods and services to consumers as the peaceful and honest means of pursuing the earning of profits; freed labor markets giving all the opportunity to search out gainful employment wherever the most attractive terms of earning a living seemed to offer itself; and a growing financial sector provided the means for making possible the expensive industrial investments that created jobs and expanded the productive capabilities of society.
Capitalism Created a Prosperous Middle Class from the Poor
The last point is, perhaps, worth emphasizing. Through most of human history, the vast majority of people who found themselves able to somehow save anything out of their meager earnings were fortunate if they could hide away a few gold or silver coins as a form of accumulated wealth.
But the development of modern banking now made it possible for even those of meager material means to put aside their modest savings in a financial institution offering an interest return on their deposits. These financial institutions could now pool together large amounts of savings from many modest savers. They funneled these people’s savings out to entrepreneurs who could never have funded their dreams of industrial enterprises out of their own incomes.
Out of the profits earned by the successful entrepreneurial borrowers came the monetary means to pay back what had been borrowed plus the interest payments agreed to, to start up or to expand their private enterprises. This interest income earned by the banks both paid the interest owed to the depositors and increased the capital of the banks to develop their ability to lend to a growing number of enterprising borrowers.
The increasing field of created and expanded private enterprises was made possible through the savings of “the workers,” themselves, and who thereby earned interest on their individual savings accounts, and through the plowing back of retained earnings into those enterprises by successful businessmen widened the number of businesses looking for workers to fill the growing number of jobs in the marketplace.
At the same time, investment in more and better machines, tools and equipment in those industrial enterprises were increasing the productivity of each worker employment, helped to increase the wages worth paying each worker hired in conjunction with the increased demand of more employers competing for workers in their businesses.
Of course, wages for all types of labor did not all rise at the same time and to the same degree. But looking over the decades of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, competitive and relatively free markets demonstrated the lie to all the naysayers like Karl Marx who claimed that “the workers” were doomed to poverty, destitution, and despair. Competitive capitalism did and has been raising increasing portions of mankind from wretched subsistence and starvation to unimaginable ease, comfort and convenience that even the richest and most successfully plundering kings and conquerors of the past could never have conceived.
George Stiglitz and Asymmetric Information
Joseph Stiglitz, needless to say, is not a Marxist or a socialist, and it would be unfair to in anyway suggest that he is. His own variation on the injustice of capitalism and its potential for exploitation is partly based on his theory of “asymmetric information” and how it enables private enterprisers to take advantage of consumers and workers in society. Indeed, this theory helped earn him the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001.
A core element in his theory is that individuals in the marketplace do not all possess the same type or degree of knowledge. Some people know things that others do not. And this “privileged” information can enable some to “exploit” others. For instance, the producer and marketer is likely to know far more about that product’s qualities, features and characteristics that he is offering on the market than most of the buyers possibly interested in purchasing it.
By withholding or not fully informing the potential buyer about all of the qualities, features and characteristics of his good, he may succeed in creating a false impression that makes the consumer have a greater demand for it and be willing to pay a higher price for it than would be the case if that consumer knew as much about the good as the seller knows.
Markets Integrate and Coordinate Decentralized Knowledge
There is no doubt that in a system of division of labor there is an accompanying division of knowledge, but this is a theme in theories of the market process long ago explained by economists in the “Austrian” tradition, especially Friedrich A. Hayek, who also received a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.
The Austrians have long emphasized that competition is a “discovery procedure” through which individuals find out things never known or imagined before. The peaceful rivalry of the marketplace creates the incentives for entrepreneurs to be unceasingly alert to profit opportunities to see possibilities that either others have missed or not thought of before. The unknown or barely perceived become seen and understood, and then taken advantage of in the form of new, better, and less expensive products offered to the consuming public.
The purpose of competitive markets and price systems is precisely to provide a way to integrate and coordinate the dispersed and decentralized knowledge in any society possessing a degree of complexity.
This same competitive market has also found ways to reduce and overcome the asymmetry of consumer versus seller knowledge concerning the qualities, features and characteristics of goods, as well, and thereby to reduce the potential and possibility of “exploiting” what the seller may know at the expense of the market buyers.
The Meaning of Search Goods and Judging the Quality of Products
In explaining how markets do this, economists sometimes distinguish between two types of goods offered and sold on the market: search goods and experience goods.
Search goods are those that can be examined and judged by the potential buyer before a purchase is made. For instance, suppose that a supermarket advertises that perfectly ripened bananas are available and on sale in their store. A consumer can enter the supermarket and fairly reasonably judge whether the quality of the good matches what has been promised in the advertising before buying it.
If examination shows that the bananas are either non-eatable green or over-ripened brown, the consumer can walk away without spending a penny on a product that has not met what was promised. By falsely or incorrectly advertising, or even unreasonably exaggerating in its advertising, the business runs the risk of not only losing that sale but the loss of its brand name reputation, threatening to see that consumer never return to that establishment again. Plus, that person can tell others what his “search” of the good came up with, potentially leading to those others not trusting that businesses advertising word without inspecting the good themselves.
This creates a self-interested incentive on the part of such sellers to practice “true in advertising,” or suffer the loss of some their regular customers upon whose repeat business their long-term profitability is dependent.
The Meaning of Experience Goods and Market Safeguards
Experience goods are those goods whose qualities, features and characteristics cannot really be fully known and appreciated without using the product in question for a period of time. Think of an automobile; you can go for a test drive, but your own best judgment of its safety, reliability and handling cannot be really known without driving the car in various weather and traffic conditions over a period of time. Or think of a bed mattress; you sit down and bounce on it, or stretch out and lay down on it in the furniture showroom, but you cannot really know if it will give you a comfortable and restful sleep every night until you’ve gone to bed on it for a period of time.
The same applies to many goods, such as household appliances, for instance. The competitive market’s response to this uncertain and imperfect knowledge on the part of potential buyers has been the seller and manufacture’s system of product warranties that enable the buyer to return the product over a period of time for his or her money back, or a replacement at no extra cost to the buyer.
It is, again, in the seller’s own self-interest to make sure that the product is what has been promised and is reliable in its working order and performance. Once more, the seller and manufacturer run the risk of losing their brand name reputation concerning quality and trustworthiness. Plus, if a warranty has to be fulfilled it is the manufacturer or seller who is forced to eat the cost of replacing the unit returned due to malfunction or failure to match buyer expectation, thus cutting into his own profit margin.
Market Uncertainty and Franchise Businesses
But what about those situations in which concern about repeat business or brand name reputation do not seem to be as present? For instance, suppose you are traveling on business or vacation and are passing through some town you are highly unlikely ever to see again.
You’re hungry for a meal or a place to stay for the night. How can you know about the quality of the meal in the local “Joe’s Greasy Spoon,” or the bedbug-free mattress in any of the rooms in the local “Bates Motel”?
The market has provided consumer information about the qualities, features and characteristics of such products and services to overcome this inescapable imperfect knowledge in the form of chain stores and franchises. You may never eat or sleep again in that particular town, but you will likely eat and sleep away from home somewhere at sometime again in the future.
The sight of the MacDonald’s “Golden Arches” or the sign for an IHOP (International House of Pancakes) anywhere, any place tells you the quality and variety of foods that you can have in any of their establishments, regardless of where its location in the United States or even the world. The same applies to seeing the sign for a Motel 6, or a Holiday Inn Express or an Embassy Suites, or a Hilton-family hotel.
You may never again go to that particular MacDonald’s or Holiday Inn, but if you travel you may very well eat or spend the night at some other chain franchise of that company. And that is the repeat business and brand name reputation that is important to the “mother company.” Thus, each chain store and franchise is required to meet standards of quality and variety that enables the consumer to have a high degree of confidence and reduced knowledge uncertainty of what he or she is getting when they enter any of these establishments regardless of where it may be located.
What makes this practice in the market consistently happen and successfully relied upon? Market competition and the self-interested profit motive.
“Perfect Competition” versus the Competitive Process
Professor Stiglitz sets up the straw man of what in economics is known as the “perfect competition” model. The presumption is that a market is only and truly “competitive” when it is filled with such a large number of sellers that each one is too small to influence the market price and in which each seller offers a product the quality of which is exactly the same ones sold by his competitors; and in which every buyer already knows all the same perfectly correct information as is known by all the sellers in those same markets.
Friedrich Hayek demonstrated the essential fallacies in this argument exacting 70 years ago when he delivered a lecture on “The Meaning of Competition” on May 20, 1946 at Princeton University. He explained that the very nature of a truly competitive market is precisely one in which rivals are attempting to improve the qualities of the products they offer to consumers and try to devise ways to make their products at lower costs precisely to be able to afford to offer them at lower prices to buyers to attract business way from their competitors. That is what makes market competition a dynamic, never-ending process of improved and less expensive goods and services available for the members of any society.
For economists like Joseph Stiglitz, trying to offer goods at prices different than your rivals or with qualities and characteristics differentiated from those sold by your competitors is a sign of “market failure,” of “imperfect” or “monopolistic” market practices. But for economists like Friedrich Hayek, such price and product rivalry and competition is the essential indication of the vibrancy of the competitive process at work.
Market competition in Hayek’s sense of the concept does not need a large number of rivals to be “truly” competitive. What is required are no political or legal barriers that stand in the way of potential competitors either at home or from abroad. From the economic point-of-view the market encompasses the world, regardless of where those who runs governments may have drawn lines on a political map.
Stiglitz’s “Market Failures” are Really Forms of Crony Capitalism
And this gets to the crucial and essential error in Professor Stiglitz’s argument concerning the concentration of “monopoly” power in the marketplace, and any resulting “unjust” inequality of wealth.
Every one of the examples that he lists as instances of such concentration of “market power” – finance and banking, cable television, health care, pharmaceuticals, agro-business – are all instances in which the competitive, free market has been interfered with by the paternalistic and regulatory hand of the government. It is not the market that has “failed” in these corners of the economy, but rather it is the presence and pervasiveness of the interventionist state.
But this, too, is typical of market critics such as Professor Stiglitz. They deceptively call “market failures” instances not of competitive free markets but of “crony capitalism” under which special interests have successfully interacted with politicians and bureaucrats to rig the market for their own benefit at the expense of both consumers and potential competitors who are legally prevented or hindered from entering sectors of the economy where they would like to try to gain market share and earn profits by offering better and lower priced goods than their privileged rivals are offering to those consumers.
Con Men Are Always with Us, Free Markets Constrain Them
Are there con men, hucksters and cheats? Of course there are. They existed in ancient Athens just as they exist today. There are always people who will try to dishonestly get what others have, when doing it that way seems easier and less costly than through honest production and trade.
The question is not whether human nature can be transformed to eliminate this aspect of human conduct. The question is, are their market institutions and incentives that can systemically reduce this type of behavior and, instead, generate more honest and properly informed human interactions?
And the answer is, yes. In fact, most of these positive incentive mechanisms have emerged and evolved out of the competitive market process, itself. These “market solutions” to the “social problem” of asymmetric information were discovered by market participants themselves to be profitable ways of gaining consumer trust and confidence and business, without any government command or imposition. Plus, their discovery and practiced institutional forms could never have been fully anticipated or imagined in their detail before and separate from the competitive market processes that generated them.
Once again, the “let-alone” principle of peaceful competitive market association has demonstrated itself to be superior to the presumption and arrogance of the governmental social engineer.
Worker Exploitation has Its Source in Government Intervention
Furthermore, if workers have been exploited in the past or present, and do not receive the full and proper value for the labor services they may render, this, too, has been the result of politically-sponsored or allowed “power” inside the market. Compulsory labor unions have manipulated and rigged labor markets, giving wage and work privileges and favors to some workers, but at the expense of other workers locked out of employment and income opportunities due to the “closed shop.”
Government imposed minimum wage laws have priced some low and unskilled workers out of jobs leaving them unemployed and possibly permanent wards of the government’s welfare state programs. Anti-competition regulations and related market restrictions (including burdensome taxes on business) have reduced the private sector’s ability and incentives to create jobs and invest in ways that raise the value of workers’ output over time.
If workers are “exploited” in the modern world, Professor Stiglitz should look at the very interventionist policies that he proposes and defends. They are the primary cause of the very conditions and injustices that he deplores, including the greater degrees of material inequality than would or need exist, if only the regulating and paternalistic state they he so much desires and admires were to get out of the way of the free market competitive process.