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The Beautiful Order of the Flea Market

August 11, 2011

Tags Free Markets

Last weekend, I paid visit to a flea market known as Saturday's Market just a few miles from my hometown. Saturday's Market was established in 1975 and is your typical flea market, where vendors lease spaces and sell goods.

There is an indoor section containing over 300 merchants and food vendors. The outdoor parking lot has close to 100 spaces available for anyone to rent and set up shop. In recent years, the number of outdoor vendors has increased greatly.

The outdoor vendor area resembles New York City's Chinatown rather than a gathering of community yard sales selling hardly used items. A complete disregard for intellectual-property rights is on full display, with numerous knock-off handbags, sunglasses, sneakers, and scarves bearing luxury brands. As in any black market, goods inevitably find their way to consumers.

What struck me as remarkable during this recent trip was, not just the wide array of merchandise available, but the whole environment of Saturday's Market. Upon entry into the vendor area, one is struck by scenes of people from all walks of life browsing through makeshift stores. Black, white, Latino, Asian, you name it — almost every race and ethnicity is represented.

Bear in mind that this is central Pennsylvania we are talking about. This is the same state James Carville famously declared was "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between." The diversity of the American "melting pot" is nowhere more evident than at Saturday's Market.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of a flea market is the lack of any real organization. Vendors rent out spaces, set up shop, and let the public decide whether or not to patronize their makeshift stores. Many of these "stores" are nothing more than a few card tables set up in front of a van.

It is common to see a middle-aged man selling something like potted flowers next to a young girl selling hundreds of pairs of sunglasses. Both are attempting to attract two different types of customers, and they coexist next to each for a few hours on the weekend for the sheer purpose of improving their standard of living by selling their wares. There is no need for tension or animosity; there is money to be made. The benefits of cooperation trump unnecessary controversy.

This cooperation is the essence of entrepreneurship and the division of labor. In his book Omnipotent Government, Ludwig von Mises praised this phenomenon, saying that "the greatest accomplishment of reason is the discovery of the advantages of social cooperation, and its corollary, the division of labor." Indeed this is what arises in places such as Saturday's Market.

Flea markets such as this must be baffling to central planners. Here we are living in a country where an 80-year-old barber is forced to go back and get a license, shampoo specialists require 150 hours of training, and monks need to become licensed funeral directors in order to sell homemade wooden caskets.

But occupational licensing, another extension of the state's continual appetite to control the economy, is practically nonexistent at Saturday's Market. Spontaneous order, not top-down dictation from bureaucrats, is what drives the flea market.

Vendors try to meet the demand of shoppers who are constantly looking for bargains. Prices are never set in stone, and buyers haggle their way to a lower cost. Eventually a mutually agreeable price is reached and both parties benefit from the exchange. The purchaser is satisfied with his product, and the vendor is satisfied with her monetary compensation.

Whether they know it or not, those who buy and sell at Saturday's Market serve as a reminder that social cooperation arises when individuals have the freedom to organize. As long as local law enforcement does not interfere with the operation, flea markets will continue to be a safe haven for those looking to engage in commerce away from burdensome and costly government regulation.

While my recent visit to Saturday's Market was eye-opening, the trip would have been complete if only I had found a new $5 pair of purple-tinted Dolce & Gabbana aviator sunglasses to replace my old ones. Good thing there is always next Saturday.


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