Those of us in economics are confronted on a regular basis with the fantasy of perfect markets. It’s the idea, produced and presumed by neoclassical economists, that markets capture all the relevant costs and benefits of producing and exchanging commodities. Therefore, the conclusion is, if a market for something exists, it should be allowed to operate freely, and, if it doesn’t exist, it should be created. Then, when markets are allowed to flourish, the economy as a whole will reach a global optimum, what is often referred to as Pareto efficiency.
OK. Clearly, in the real world, that’s a silly proposition. And the idea of “market imperfections” is certainly catching on.
I’m thinking, for example, of Robert Shiller (who, along with George Akerlof, recently published Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception):
Don’t get us wrong: George and I are certainly free-market advocates. In fact, I have argued for years that we need more such markets, like futures markets for single-family home prices or occupational incomes, or markets that would enable us to trade claims on gross domestic product. I’ve written about these things in this column.
But, at the same time, we both believe that standard economic theory is typically overenthusiastic about unregulated free markets. It usually ignores the fact that, given normal human weaknesses, an unregulated competitive economy will inevitably spawn an immense amount of manipulation and deception.
And then there’s Robert Reich, who focuses on the upward redistributions going on every day, from the rest of us to the rich, that are hidden inside markets.
For example, Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals than do the citizens of any other developed nation.
That’s partly because it’s perfectly legal in the U.S. (but not in most other nations) for the makers of branded drugs to pay the makers of generic drugs to delay introducing cheaper unbranded equivalents, after patents on the brands have expired.
This costs you and me an estimated $3.5 billion a year – a hidden upward redistribution of our incomes to Pfizer, Merck, and other big proprietary drug companies, their executives, and major shareholders.
We also pay more for Internet service than do the inhabitants of any other developed nation.
The average cable bill in the United States rose 5 percent in 2012 (the latest year available), nearly triple the rate of inflation.
Why? Because 80 percent of us have no choice of Internet service provider, which allows them to charge us more.
Internet service here costs 3 and-a-half times more than it does in France, for example, where the typical customer can choose between 7 providers.
And U.S. cable companies are intent on keeping their monopoly.
And the list of such market imperfections could, of course, go on.
The problem, as I see it, is that these critics tend to focus on the sphere of markets and to forget about what is happening outside of markets, in the realm of production, where labor is performed and value is produced. The critics’ idea is that, if only we recognize the existence of widespread market imperfections, we can make the market system work better (and nudge people to achieve better outcomes). My concern is that, even if all markets work perfectly, a tiny group at the top who perform no labor still get to appropriate the surplus labor of those who do.
Accepting that our task is to make imperfect markets work better makes us all look like fools. In the end, it does nothing to eliminate that fundamental redistribution going on every day, “from the rest of us to the rich,” which is hidden outside the market.