Some Thoughts on Free Markets and Limits

I was driving to the airport to pick someone up after a too-long absence the other day when the traffic load struck me (figuratively).  I was driving on a modern freeway with no impediments to traffic flow.  Adjacent to this was a frontage road with traffic lights.  Even though the traffic loads were the same on both roads, the traffic on the frontage road stayed bunched up and slow moving—neither the drivers who wanted to go faster nor the slower drivers were able to go as fast as they wished due to the limits imposed on everyone traffic by those lights.

On the freeway, however, the traffic quickly got strung out and widely spaced, as the faster drivers moved apace, and the slower drivers—moving faster than their brethren on the frontage road—moved at their preferred slower pace.

What has this to do with free markets, one might ask.  It’s those limits.  The traffic lights—the limits a government applies to a centrally managed economy that requires (limited) licenses to manufacture so as to not over produce, licenses to sell so as to avoid unsanctioned pricing, licenses to handle the manufacturing scraps, donations to the correct political cause, and “protection” for everyone—keep everyone bunched up and slow-moving.  Certainly, the speed range between the fast-movers and the slow-movers was much narrower than the speed range on the freeway, but everyone was moving much more slowly than we were on our freeway.

Of course, on closer inspection, the analogy breaks down, but that closer inspection, now that we have the overall picture from the analogy, demonstrates the power of the free market economy compared to one that’s controlled by government, one that has those “traffic lights.”  Within the context of this post, the individual actors on each of the two highways are largely unrelated to each other, with the cars on the traffic light-limited highway, for instance, connected only by the physical presence of a car in front that’s held up by a red light or that is a slower-moving car in the forced bunch and so is holding up all the cars behind it.

In a free market economy, though, all the players are inextricably intertwined.  Indeed, the fast-movers don’t merely facilitate the slow-movers’ ability to get along down the market road, these fast-movers actually help pull the slow-movers along—even though the speed range between economic fast-movers and slow-movers in the free market is wider than it is in the managed economy.

Take luxuries, for example.  Two come to mind: air conditioners and televisions.

Oh, wait; these aren’t luxuries anymore, and they haven’t been for decades.

When these things first came out, only the rich, the economic fast-mover, could afford an air conditioner in the window of his house or a TV in his house’s living room.  But in a free market, these fast-movers helped create the market for the air conditioner and the television.  Call it a status symbol—I’ve arrived—or a desire to be first on the block to have one, or any other reason, only the rich both could afford such things and were interested in acting on the desire.

Air conditioner and television producers, wanting to sell more into that nascent market, produced more, and so more were bought.  In the free market economy, others wanted a piece of that action, and they produced air conditioners and televisions.  Competition between the producers—which doesn’t exist in a managed economy—began driving prices down, which made these luxuries more affordable—which drew in more producers wanting a taste of the money, which drove prices down even more, and ultimately, nearly everyone could—and did—buy.  Today, most houses have central air, and of those that don’t, most have window air conditioners that cost as little as $100—an unheard of level of cheapness 50 years ago—and air conditioning comes standard in our cars.

Today, most houses have multiple televisions, and increasing numbers have 50″ and 60″ plasma or LCD televisions, technologies not even imagined in the ’50s when television sets first started to become widely affordable.  And our higher end (no longer strictly high end, even) cars now have DVD players, or streaming video, or both—again, technologies unheard of just a bit ago.

Moreover, it’s those fast-movers that do the hiring of those slow-movers, either directly into their own production facilities, or indirectly, by the market’s push to get more manufacturing online, into other production facilities that are newly built or expanding existing operations to support the burgeoning market for all those (ex-) luxury goods. The ripples spread, too.  Supporting functions grow: the transistor and chip manufacturers to support the circuits in all those televisions, for example.

All this because the economic fast-movers wanted a luxury good, and a free market, unlimited by government “guidance,” enabled those luxuries to become commodities.

Finally, one too-often overlooked result is that those relatively farther behind free market slow-movers are vastly better off than are their slow-moving counterparts in the managed economy.  And with the jobs created by that free market, they have excellent opportunities to move up their economic ladder.

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