Number 1, October 1995

How Would the Free Market 'Set People to Work'?

By Vin Suprynowicz

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         Brother Clark writes from Oakland, honestly puzzled about how a free-market society could work. "It seems to me that people are both benevolent and malign," he says. "We do our best to be kind, wise, fair and so on, but all of us are at time also gluttonous, wrathful, etc. ...
         "So, why is the free market system -- in any form -- necessarily any more benevolent or less malign than the people who run it? This is what has bothered me from the beginning about championing some form of laissez-faire capitalism as a cure-all for our lengthy list of ills. It's like saying 'If we just had the right kind of machine, and it could be made to run properly, all that's senseless and unfortunate would be set right.'
         "Whereas it seems to me that the government and the marketplace are inseparably bound up with the people who run and take part in them and their (our) intentions. And for every story of some poor guy rewarded for his ingenuity by the marketplace, there's one about factories without safety precautions, or about Third-World countries being despoiled and manipulated by the World Bank.
         "Now it's much harder to talk about setting people to working more cooperatively and benevolently than it is to talk about installing a system that is supposed to embody some virtues and dispense them accordingly. But if any system is only as good as the people who run it, isn't it then necessary to talk about just that?"
         Brother Clark is sincere, but look at the statist terms in which his argument is couched. We hear of the people who would "run" the free-market system. But nobody "runs" a market. Go to the flea market at the old drive-in movie grounds and ask the lady selling the Elvis busts who assigned her that task.
         It is only collectivist schemes that give armed party members the task of assigning everyone else a job ... and a tax number. All the minimal government of a libertarian country would guarantee is that he who does work, or invent, would get to keep the proceeds. Neither the masked brigand nor the IRS man with his rule book could steal even a portion of what people freely pay him.
         It is the collectivist, not the free marketeer, who dreams of engineering some kind of "perfect machine," with every citizen a cog, quick-marched to his proper position and duly inserted into the escapement. The whole key to a real free market (as opposed to bogus "privatization" scams) is not changing who is assigned to maintain the highways, it is that no one is assigned to maintain the highways.
         Once the potholes get bad enough, someone will say "Darn it, I'd pay $5,000 to have that road repaired so my eggs wouldn't break on the way to market." His neighbor, who owns an asphalt truck, overhears him and says "I can't do the whole road for $5,000, but I'd do it for $5,000 a mile." Other neighbors are solicited, the funds raised, and the job done. If those who didn't pay start to detour onto the newly-repaired road, running it down faster, the repairman would be perfectly free to "homestead" the road, building a house and tollgate along it and charging a toll.
         Clark's argument is full of folks "running the system," "setting people to work," "installing a system that is supposed to embody some virtues." We have become so used to being organized like a plantation of slaves that we can only conceive of the alternative as some different way for the slaves to be "set about their tasks;" the notion that all the chains might be struck off, at which point each man would have to figure out how to trade what he could make or do in order to get what else he wants or needs, is so foreign we can't grasp it.
         As for the notion that "For every story of some ... reward for ingenuity, there's one ... about Third-World countries being despoiled by the World Bank," there could be no "World Bank," funded with extorted tax dollars and granted a government monopoly on its tasks, in any libertarian land. The World Bank won't even loan money to a free country. Paramount in its loan requirements is that a strong central government come up with some huge collectivist monument which its rulers want to build, with a detailed plan for how taxes will be extorted for decades to come to pay the thing off. Approach the World Bank for a few hundred thousand to grow mixed vegetables for the local market and you'll find they have no interest in such sordid little profit-making schemes: come back when you're ready to nationalize a million acres and grow pesticide-laden cotton for export.
         When the United States was a truly free market in the 1800s, most of its growth was funded by private capital which poured in from Europe. If "Third World" America was thus "despoiled" with ranches, mines, factories, and railroads -- tripling the wealth of even the lowest worker -- let's have some more of it.
         Finally, Clark worries that with a tiny, constitutional government, no one would be inspecting the factories for safety.
         No one is inspecting them now. OSHA had never inspected the chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C., which burned with scores of fatalities because the exit doors were chained shut.
         OSHA had not been to inspect the Aztec Catalyst Co. of Elyria, Ohio in the 19 years preceding the injury of 84 people there in a toxic chemical explosion in 1993, despite the fact the Elyria Fire Department had been called to 21 fires at the plant since 1982. But OSHA at one point did have 140 separate regulations governing wooden ladders.
         It would be bad enough if we were trading our precious freedoms for safety. But we're not even getting the safety.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may reach him via e-mail at His column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.

Next to advance to the next article, or Previous to return to the previous article, or Index to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 1, October, 1995.