Do Consumers Know What's Best for Them?
This criticism of the market is more existential than ethical. It is the popular argument that laissez faire, or the free-market economy, rests its case on the crucial assumption that every individual knows his own self-interest best. Yet, it is charged, this is not true of many individuals. Therefore, the State must intervene, and the case for the free market is vitiated.
The free-market doctrine, however, does not rest on any such assumption. Like the mythical “economic man,” the Perfectly Wise Individual is a straw man created by the critics of the theory, not implied by it.
First, it should be evident from our analysis of the free market and government intervention throughout this work that any argument for the free market rests on a far deeper and more complex doctrine. We cannot enter here into the many ethical and philosophical arguments for freedom. Secondly, the laissez-faire or free-market doctrine does not assume that everyone always knows his own interest best; it asserts rather that everyone should have the right to be free to pursue his own interest as he deems best. Critics may argue that the government should force men to lose some ex ante or present utility in order to gain ex post utility later, by being compelled to pursue their own best interests. But libertarians may well reply in rebuttal: (1) that a person's resentment at coercive interference will lower his ex post utility in any event; and (2) that the condition of freedom is a vital, necessary prerequisite for a person's “best interests” to be attained. Indeed, the only lasting way to correct a person's errors is by persuasive reasoning; force cannot do the job. As soon as the individual can evade this force, he will return to his own preferred ways.
No one, certainly, has perfect foresight into the uncertain future. But free entrepreneurs on the market are better equipped than anyone else, by incentive and by economic calculation, to foresee and satisfy the needs of the consumers.
But what if the consumers are mistaken with regard to their own interests? Obviously, they sometimes are. But several more points must be made. In the first place, every individual knows the data of his own inner self best—by the very fact that each has a separate mind and ego. Secondly, the individual, if in doubt about what his own true interests are, is free to hire and consult experts to give him advice based on their superior knowledge. The individual hires these experts and, on the market, can continuously test their helpfulness. Individuals on the market, in short, tend to patronize those experts whose advice proves most successful. Good doctors or lawyers reap rewards on the free market, while poor ones fail. But when government intervenes, the government expert acquires his revenue by compulsory levy. There is no market test of his success in teaching people their true interests. The only test is his success in acquiring the political support of the State's machinery of coercion.
Thus, the privately hired expert flourishes in proportion to his ability, whereas the government expert flourishes in proportion to his success in currying political favor. Moreover, what incentive does the government expert have to care about the interests of his subjects? Surely he is not especially endowed with superior qualities by virtue of his government post. He is no more virtuous than the private expert; indeed, he is inherently less capable and is more inclined to wield coercive force. But while the private expert has every pecuniary incentive to care about his clients or patients, the government expert has no incentive whatever. He obtains his revenue in any event. He is devoid of any incentive to worry about his subject's true interests.
It is curious that people tend to regard government as a quasi-divine, selfless, Santa Claus organization. Government was constructed neither for ability nor for the exercise of loving care; government was built for the use of force and for necessarily demagogic appeals for votes. If individuals do not know their own interests in many cases, they are free to turn to private experts for guidance. It is absurd to say that they will be served better by a coercive, demagogic apparatus.
Finally, the proponents of government intervention are trapped in a fatal contradiction: they assume that individuals are not competent to run their own affairs or to hire experts to advise them. And yet they also assume that these same individuals are equipped to vote for these same experts at the ballot box. We have seen that, on the contrary, while most people have a direct idea and a direct test of their own personal interests on the market, they cannot understand the complex chains of praxeological and philosophical reasoning necessary for a choice of rulers or political policies. Yet this political sphere of open demagogy is precisely the only one where the mass of individuals are deemed to be competent!1,2
- 1. Interventionists assume the political (but no other) competence of the people even when they favor dictatorship rather than democracy. For if the people do not vote under a dictatorship, they still must accept the rule of the dictator and his experts. So the interventionists cannot escape this contradiction even if they give up democracy.
- 2. Ludwig von Mises has been active in pointing out this contradiction. Thus, see his Planning for Freedom (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1952), pp. 42–43. However, the remainder of Mises’ criticism of this anti-market argument (ibid., pp. 40–44) rather differs from the one presented here.