Mises Daily Articles
Witness the Freest Economy: the Internet
[An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]
One of the few places in the world not yet plagued by government intervention is the internet. Although some governments in certain parts of the world have infiltrated the activities of the internet to varying degrees, it remains the closest thing to a purely free economy that we can identify in the modern world.
On the internet, the beautiful aspects of human nature manifest themselves, and we see individuals and companies maximizing their talents and resources for reasons of profit, pleasure, altruism, and mere progress in itself. Given that the government neither inhibits the activities of the internet nor props up or favors any particular actors or individuals, perhaps we are witnessing the closest thing to a free market that man has ever witnessed.
Although many consider the America of the 19th century to be the closest thing to a purely free market, in fact, congressmen constantly acted in favor of certain individuals, leading in some cases to monopolistic advantages. Ironically, at the end of the century the government intervened in an attempt to break up monopolies.
So here we are in a worldwide web that connects people from all parts of the world, allowing them to exchange whatever they want with one another. It is the essence of a free market: voluntary exchange. There is no use of force or coercion on the internet. No higher authority effectively controls or dictates the way that we spend our time online or the activities that we partake in. Although some legal obstacles inhibit people from accessing certain sites and materials, given the lack of regulation or enforcement by a higher authority, users are easily able to circumvent these restrictions and achieve the things that they want.
As it evolves, we begin to witness the endless potential that exists within the internet and the unquantifiable benefits it provides to society. Although the internet currently represents freedom from both a civil and a social perspective, I shall examine it from an economic perspective.
Arguably, the human race has seen more progress and innovation through the use of the internet in the past 20 years than through the use of any innovation known in the history of mankind. As we reflect back over the last 20 years, we see thousands of amazing success stories. We see entrepreneurs from all different economic backgrounds and classes making full use of their skills, ideas, and passions. We read about success stories such as Facebook and Google, where very young people have been able to generate massive wealth while providing a cheap, convenient, and valuable new tool for everyone across the globe to enjoy. This is the beauty of a system free from government intervention.
In fact, it's such a free market that government doesn't even effectively enforce intellectual property and copyright protection. And what is the result? We see entrepreneurs from other countries imitating successful online programs with very little detriment to the originators. In fact, Chinese entrepreneurs have created very similar programs to both Google and Facebook. As a result, all of these companies have been able to generate profits while their users still enjoy the programs at no cost.
In turn, their Chinese competitors bring increased competition to both Google and Facebook, creating incentives for them to improve their own products and continue to innovate. This example closely resembles capitalist Americans emulating European technology in the 19th century or Japanese entrepreneurs emulating Western technology during the process of their development.
Do patent protection laws truly promote greater and faster innovation? Some companies and individuals are able to avert these government-imposed rigidities online. And the success of this less-inhibited marketplace demonstrates the lack of need for patent protection laws.
If patent-protection laws, taxes, and legal-tender laws were completely eliminated from the internet, we would then see a purely free market. Although this is not foreseeable given the world's current political system, we can still continue to enjoy the advantages of this relatively unfettered aspect of modern society.
Technological advancements benefit society for many obvious reasons. In an unfettered marketplace, innovation reduces costs for businesses and hence prices for consumers. For example, in the past, some families spent several hundred dollars every few years just to update their encyclopedia set, even though all of the content in these encyclopedias was publicly accessible; the encyclopedia companies merely compiled the information into a more concise format.
Although these companies provided a very valuable product to society, there is now a decreased need for physical encyclopedias due to the increase of information available on the internet. Let us hope the Obama administration does not attempt to "bailout" Britannica anytime soon.
We begin to see so many things being offered on the internet not only for very cheap prices, but for free. Information that used to cost individuals and companies exorbitant fees can now be found on the internet freely, thus allowing individuals and companies to spend that money elsewhere, improving their own operations.
Before the internet took off in the 1990s, businesses across the United States spent billions of dollars every year on information. Nowadays, companies save millions of dollars per year on research, data, and inventory, which can now be spent on other areas of the business, such as rewarding employees with higher bonuses or purchasing new facilities and advanced equipment. The economy as a whole is operating more efficiently, as overall costs and expenditures have gone down.
Often the most neglected benefit of technology for society is decreased prices. During and after the time of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, we witnessed a myriad of price reductions across most industries. As prices dropped and the cost of living decreased, individuals and entrepreneurs were encouraged to identify other niches throughout the market and introduce new technologies.
Unfortunately, much of modern society has a hard time grasping the benefit of price decreases, while central banks throughout the world continue to print money, which leads to price increases.
In modern times, we can purchase almost any sort of product via the internet and can access almost any information that we desire. When we consider the vast number of people and companies throughout society that earn profits by merely providing information, we can only imagine the enormous costs that can be saved as a result of more accessible and cheaper (often free) information now available to all of society online. What is even more encouraging is that we see the providers of this information doing so for reasons other than profit — a reflection of man's pursuit of passion and his innate sense of compassion.
Unfortunately, as has always been the case, the internet and its infinite value to society is threatened by a ubiquitous force: government. As we've seen throughout history, when companies become threatened by competitors, they do whatever is possible to prevent or squash competition — often through the use of government force.
In the 1930s, unions used various means for lobbying in DC in an attempt to introduce a minimum wage law, which ultimately passed. Smaller companies who could not afford to pay these increased wages were soon forced out of business.
Sure enough, various actors in DC are now lobbying to regulate the internet. In April 2009, AP began to publicize a widespread attack on Google — arguably the most successful company and widely enjoyed technology of the past 10 years. As more and more information-providing companies see their revenues dwindle as a result of better and more convenient information being provided by competitors on the internet, we can be certain that a greater number of companies will congregate in DC to propose greater regulation.
Let us hope our government is stern enough to defend the Constitution as it was written with the intent of dealing with this type of dilemma. The first amendment, freedom of the press, was most strongly emphasized by Thomas Jefferson. He stated, "Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe."
The internet is a model of the free market. It represents all of the aspects of capitalism that we cannot witness in our current offline world due to the high level of government intervention that pervades our society. Online, we see widespread competition, low barriers to entry, voluntary exchange, rapid technological advancements, decreased prices, and a flowering of creativity.