Friday, February 13, 2009

Free markets lead to free people

I'm sure I've heard that somewhere, but I couldn't honestly say where. Anyway, it reflects my views on what commercial exchange should be: The lesser the barriers, the better. The market (the people) will take care of balance, making sure prices are not too high (if someone tries to sell something at a high rate, with too much profit, someone else will offer it at a lower rate, still make a profit and trhow the first one out of the game. On the other hand, prices cannot fall lower than a fair rate, because when profit is not made, no one will offer it at such rates.

The paragraph above describes the 'simplest' (some might say naive) view on a fully free unbounded market, and a too optimistic one. But that's the basis: freedom in markets should be regulation enough to ensure the flow of goods: Wherever a need arises a demand is created and the market will balance it so it is soon covred with an appropiate offer. Offer and demand. The 'magic' balance of capitalism.

So, the so-called free world (or first world) doesn't have a free market, it is regulated and controlled: Heavily in some countries, a little less in others. But always regulated. Taxes are collected and used to cover some basic needs of their people, or to adjust their unbalances. Regulatory commissions, tribunals, etc,.... overlook market operations, make rules, propose and execute sanctions, control abuses, .... A company cannot sell anything at whatever the price, cannot abuse their employees, cannot monopolize a whole area of their bussiness (well, some of those things happen, it is not a perfect world, but some institutions are there to ensure it as far as possible - and please let's leave corruption aside for this theoretical exercise).

So, why doesn't market regulate itself? Where is that balance? Why doesn't an abuser company loose all its employees to a fairer one? Why doesn't a company that overprices, let's say, certain essential goods (food, gas, energy...) go broke because no one buys from them? The answer is something I like to call 'illusion of freedom'. We are not as free as we pretend, and the market is not free as our little theory requires. Sometimes you cannot choose: some grocery stores are closer to your home than others, so you are not entirely free to choose between them. Some areas only have smalll populations, which cannot support more than one provider of goods, whom would then be able to inflate prices. Or even cannot afford any provider at all, which stops them from getting some goods (and it doesn't matter when a population is not good bussines for a Channel or Luis Vuitton boutique, but it would be catastrophic if they got no farmacies or hospitals or food supply only because it is not good bussiness).

And then we have bad practises: in a free market companies, providers... everybody on the 'offer' side fight a fair fight to get a share of buyers (the 'demand' side). But oftetimes those in priviledged postitions will abuse it (I have a great share of the market, so I'll drop prices so I get everybody else out and do my will), or the fight is not so fair (we both have a pretty good part of the market controlled, so let´s deal so prices don't drop and we both keep our profits up). Or..... Does any of those situations sound familiar? If your answer was 'no', grab a paper from any country any day randomly in the last couple of years and take a look at the economy pages.

And finally, freedom means knowledge (and vicecersa, knowledge means freedom). For anybody to be absolutely free to choose, he has to kwow all (or at least most) of its alternatives. And know them well: What good he is being offered by any of the providers, the quality of it, the origin and whatever he feels is important for the decision. Also, what he is commiting to in the deal, and what the other part is (support, right of return,....). Freedom and transparency are key. So when you are being sold a share of a packet composed of a few debts some thousands of people the other way around the world used to pay for an inflated price of some other thing that really doesn't have any value and of which you have never heard of (and if you had it wouldn't maka any difference because you wouldn't understand it) you are not being free to choose. You are, nobody is forcing you to nothing, but that's theory, because you don't have the knowledge.

So yes, we need regulated markets. The lesser the better (I don't trust public officers as much as I should, and I thing bigger power produces bigger corruption), but a good amount of regulation and regulators is needed. And laws. And freedom of speach. And freedom of access to information. And freedom of access to analysis of such information. I don't want a goverment telling me 'this stuff is no good for you, so let's forbid it'. I prefer that 'that stuff' is completely transparent. And I want to get access to experts opinions about them. And probably a government to control that info so it is the truth. That way I'll be free to choose. And with that freedom, and the knowledge available and understandable, why would I choose to do something that is bad for me?

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