George Walford: The Free Marketeers

Jean Baptiste Colbert, Minister in charge of finance under Louis XIV, asked the merchants what he could do for them; they added to the common stock of cliches with the reply: “Laissez-nous faire.” Or so the story goes. After generations as an unassimilated immigrant the phrase has now been naturalised as the demand for a free market. A number of people and groups, the Libertarian Alliance probably the largest and most influential, have come together to form a movement maintaining that the way to the free society goes via the removal of restraints, especially those imposed by government, upon buying, selling and the accumulation of wealth. (The discussion below speaks only of economic relations; political affairs follow a different course.)

The Libertarian Alliance [1] takes as its slogan: “For Life, Liberty and Property,” and the robust practicality of that carries through into its literature. No talk here of revolutions, barricades, banners, martyrs, sacrifice or high theory; all rests on firm and familiar earth, the changes required easy to understand, the gains to appear forthwith. The theme rings out bold and clear: Do away with restrictions on the market. The system of private property, production and exchange known by this name was freely introduced by people working for their own benefit and has amply proven its worth; it has given us our standard of living and our concrete freedoms. Attempts to restrain it produce only loss and frustration, leading to demands for still more control that will produce still worse effects. For the benefit of all it should be allowed to operate freely.

Writers for the Alliance do not pull their punches. Guns, knives, liquor, tobacco, drugs and pornography should be freely on sale. Communist, Nazi, atheistic and any other literature should enjoy free circulation although recognised as controversial and even poisonous; a man may shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. [2]

Free operation of the market tends to produce a range from wealth to poverty, and so it should; human lives and cultures do not all possess equal value and we ought not treat them as if they did. Christianity, often called in support of equality, yet values the saved above the damned, and a Professor of Education (named) who denies that some cultures have greater value than others makes nonsense of his profession; if superior education does not confer superior value it has no point. [3] Ensure a plentiful supply of rentable and affordable accommodation by abolishing all controls: ‘really bad really cheap housing provided by sordid Dickensian entrepreneurs would be downright desirable… ‘ [4] Compulsory schooling comes close to slavery; children should remain free to pursue education or not as they choose, and free also to run away from home and seek alternative “parents” – or to fend for themselves if they prefer that. The market provides food successfully, why not education? Society has steadily moved away from collectivism, and attempts to return towards it in 1789 France, 1917 Russia and 1933 Germany have proved disastrous failures; “the population of the world owes its very existence to the capitalist system based on individualistic morality.” [6] Unlike French and Italian, English has enjoyed freedom from any serious attempt to impose compulsory standards upon it; now half the world’s books, sixty percent of its radio programs and seventy percent of all international mail use this language. The contrast between the smoothness with which language works, and the difficulties experienced by money (under statist control almost since its inception) show the superiority of voluntary methods. [7] The enduring popularity of thrillers, with their strongly individualistic heroes, shows the widespread preference for such activity over the “man is a victim” of the naturalistic school favoured by the socialists. [8] Free immigration would increase trade, benefiting the whole economy. [9]

All the proposals above come from the latest batch of papers issued by the Alliance; other writers supporting the same general movement, for example David Friedman in his Machinery of Freedom, [10] go on to dismantle the state, claiming that private enterprise can do its job more effectively and more cheaply. Like other free marketeers Friedman shows his proposals, even for private-enterprise law-courts, to be a great deal less unworkable than their unfamiliarity makes them sound; this paragraph conveys the approach:

The central idea of libertarianism is that people should be permitted to run their own lives as they wish. We totally reject the idea that people must be forcibly protected from themselves. A libertarian society would have no laws against drugs, gambling, pornography – and no compulsory seat belts in cars. We also reject the idea that people have an enforceable claim on others, for anything more than being left alone. A libertarian society would have no welfare, no Social Security system. People who wished to aid others would do so voluntarily through private charity, instead of using money collected by force from the taxpayers. People who wished to provide for their old age would do so through private insurance. [11]

Although the movement centres its demand on freedom for the market its aspirations reach farther. David Friedman claims that “the institutions of private property are the machinery of freedom,” [12] and the Alliance links itself with liberty both in its title and in its slogan. The free-marketeers (or at least the more enthusiastic among them) claim their proposed free-market society as the society of freedom unqualified, but the claim does not stand up to examination. The market, like any other method of social organisation (even anarchy), promotes some freedoms by repressing others, and indications of this appear in Friedman. Private-enterprise police and law-courts provide the show-piece of his exposition, and a system that repressed no human tendency would not need these defences. The market cannot function without massive limitation of the freedom of individual people.

Humanity has known a time in which people did act independently, and it preceded the appearance of the market. For many thousands of years after human beings first appeared the earth remained for the most part unappropriated; available, with its fruits, for all to help themselves. Each person, or at most each family, attended to their own material needs, finding their own food, making their own clothes, tools, weapons and dwellings. They sometimes worked together, for example when hunting, but they did this for direct individual benefit, remaining free to return to independent action if that offered advantages. If the community came under attack the men might defend it but not in the manner of modern soldiers, bound to obey and trained to die for the regiment. They fought independently, each of them free to quit if he chose. [13] Trade appeared only in larval form, as an exchange of gifts, and it remained marginal. In principle, and overwhelmingly in practice, everybody attended, independently, to the satisfaction of their own material needs. Marshall Sahlins notes that so far as anything like a productive system appears at all it operates atomistically as a number of separate and uncoordinated households, working in parallel and lacking the specialization that produces co-operation. [14] In the terms we use here, economic behaviour displayed raw individualism.

With the advent of agriculture this came under repression; the production of crops and herds, and provision of the constant protection they need against predators human and animal, requires co-operation, and once this had begun it did not take long for organised hierarchical states to appear, with producers, warriors, priests, rulers and other specialists all subordinating their individualism to the requirements of their particular roles. Here police, laws, prescribed punishments and the market as a significant influence make their entrance, all of them contributing to the repression of individualism. But the market does not yet dominate. When things get tight, as in time of war or threatened famine, each individual community asserts itself against the market, imposing controls on prices and freedom of trade and, if it thinks fit, taking over the contents of warehouse and store-room. The community helps itself to goods when it needs to, but a practice once followed constantly by everybody has at this stage become an emergency measure available only to communities. Individual people benefit in many ways, but they no longer have their former freedom of action. Marshall Sahlins again: “Compared with the tribal condition, capitalist free enterprise is the apotheosis of order.” [15]

The market (together with other institutions) advanced as organised society increasingly restricted personal freedom. In the next stage it becomes global and begins to dominate its competitors, even to regulate the behaviour of states. One facet of this development produces the multi-nationals, another the EC with its common market; the British government now struggles, without much prospect of any lasting success, to retain some significant degree of economic independence. Banking and finance form part of the market system, and although the fiscal freedom of the super-powers has not gone it has diminished and looks set to diminish farther. The growth of the market, from foraging through chattel slavery, feudalism, mercantilism and other stages to become a world-wide system imposing restrictions on governments, has accompanied a progressive shift of freedom of action away from the individual (at first personal, later social) towards the global collectivity. The movements known generically as socialist usually see themselves as opposing the market, but in a wider view they seek to advance the progression in which it appears as one stage. In the form of the global market the global community makes its first appearance upon the economic scene, and the socialistic movements work in support, cultivating the all-in collectivity, providing it with purpose and reason, and seeking to carry it beyond the imposition of merely market restrictions to the suppression of buying, selling and accumulation of wealth. Some of them seek the total elimination of money and private property.

We have distinguished four stages in the progress of the market. First, the non-market society. Second, the stage in which it remains for the most part geographically limited (though sometimes operating over wide areas) and under the control of non-market institutions or at least subject to serious interference from them. Third, the dominating global market. Fourth, repression of the market. Of these, the fourth remains largely an aspiration, with the free marketeers appointing themselves the spearhead of resistance against further movement towards it.

The movement through these stages has followed the evolutionary pattern, and (although this often gets overlooked) evolutionary transitions follow a pattern including persistence of the earlier stages as the later ones appear. But although persisting, these undergo repression. Society no longer operates simply by raw individualism, and non-market institutions no longer have the scope for interference they once enjoyed. These persist as valued patterns of behaviour but they no longer predominate; they operate beneath or within the market structure.

The non-market foraging communities went with sparsity of population and ready availability of land. Those conditions no longer obtain, but the direct method of satisfying requirements – just taking what one wants, without worrying whether it belongs to anybody else persists today. It appears within the family, where children get their needs satisfied without having to buy what they require, and the tendency to help oneself to other people’s belongings persists as a prominent feature of adult life. From council flat to stock market private property needs constant protection against people who would treat it in the same freely individualistic way as the foragers treated natural supplies, and the free-market society would be able to allow such behaviour no more approval than it receives at present. Supporters of the market may have the right of it when they condemn theft, but it remains a popular expression of individualism and the free-market society would have to suppress it.

In the second stage other institutions, government and the church the most obvious ones, acted to a large extent independently of the market and not infrequently overrode it. “Government” in this connection includes the feudal lords, paying little attention to the market since there was not much for sale apart from the basics which their own estates produced, but greatly concerned with military domination and with numbers of retainers. In this stage personal commitment, either to a cause (such as a religion) or to a ruler, came to supersede the earlier raw individualism, and it persists today, providing a motive for action which even commercial concerns appeal to when they talk of loyalty, and one which sometimes overrides commercial considerations. People take account of the social (as distinct from the commercial) valuation of what they do, and some of them go against market principles by choosing the less well-paid of two occupations. Office politics sometimes interfere with the smooth running of a business, every workforce becomes to some extent a social unit, and one school of business studies accounts for much that managers do by suggesting that they value security above profit. Non-commercial behaviour enables institutions – churches, clubs of all sorts, charities, movements, parties and states – to maintain themselves against market pressures and sometimes to overcome them. One Alliance paper [16] presents the heroes of thrillers as instances of the behaviour this movement favours, but the appeal of James Bond and his fellows lies largely in their repudiation of market values; they do not sell themselves to the highest bidder.

When the free-marketeers resist the efforts of socialists to repress the market and its methods they defend the existing degree of economic individualism against the collectivists. If they want to do more than that, to increase the scope for independent individual activity, then they have a problem. They can best do this by reversing their present course, by widening the scope for both people and institutions not only to go against socialist principles but also to contravene those of the market.

1. The Libertarian Alliance, 1 Russell Chambers, [address]
2. Jack Schwartzman The Devil and the Reformers.
3. Antony Flew: Equal Liberty versus Equal Value.
4. Brian Micklethwait: Another Attack on the Rent Acts.
5. Kevin McFarlane: Envisaging a Free Market in Education.
6. Robert Thomas: Socialism and Political Atavism.
7. Carl Watner: Voluntaryism and the English Language.
8. Tom Burroughes: Heroes are forever; the James Bond Thrillers.
9. Adam Chacksfield: Open the Door! The Case for Abolishing all Immigration Controls.
10. David Friedman: 1973 The Machinery of Freedom; guide to a radical capitalism NY: Harper.
11. Friedman xiii.
12. Friedman, Introduction.
13. “What we do know about military organisation in [simple egalitarian] socs indicates a complete absence of command or combination; every man stands and fights or runs away by himself.” Morton H. Fried 1967 The Evolution of
Political Society; an essay in political anthropology
NY: Random House 104.
14. Sahlins M. 1968 Tribesmen Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc. 76
15. Ibid.
16. Tom Burroughes op. cit.

If we say that anything which produces effects thereby demonstrates its reality then, although the reality of an independent world remains an unsupported claim (all effects being accounted for by the world we know) we cannot say the same for the assumption of its presence. This ranks firmly among the realities, for it affects the behaviour of those who hold it, if only by leading them to make statements different from those made by people holding other assumptions.

from Ideological Commentary 55, Spring 1992.