The free market is praised as the best way to organize human activities and the best way to ensure that progress is made in important fields. If we want to solve climate change, then we need the free market to fuel new technological innovations for clean energy. If we want to reduce poverty, then we need the free market to run at full power to ensure everyone can find employment. If we want better justice around the globe, then we need the free market to operate without borders so that everyone everywhere is competing in the same economic system which values good governance.
But the reality is that the free market doesn’t really care about all these good outcomes. The free market is indifferent. It is happy to exist and fuel great advances as well as great evils. Yuval Noah Harari uses the slave trade in his book Sapiens as an example of the indifference of the free market to human morals and values. He writes, “the slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organized and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.”
A free market is great, and we can benefit from the efficiencies and effectiveness of the free market, but we have to realize that it doesn’t come with a pre-defined set of values, except for maybe supply and demand plus efficiency. The free market doesn’t care about biodiversity. It doesn’t care about climate change. It doesn’t care about slave labor and exploitation. It simply cares about supplying product to meet the demand in the most efficient way possible. This means that free markets can be subject to abuse, inequality, fraud, and worse. Harari continues, “this is the fly in the ointment of free market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner.”
For human societies, morals, equity, fairness, and other ideas and concepts are very important. We certainly could have a world with subjugated humans dominated by a few who are able to wrangle free market capitalism for their own benefit, but few would say that our species would truly be flourishing in that system. We could have a planet where all resources were available to the engine of free market capitalism, but when we have killed off almost all plant and animal species besides the select few we have decided are valuable to us, then we might not like the climate consequences or the consequences of not having new plants and animals to study for medicines and science. “Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed,” writes Harari. This has been our reality, and could continue to be our reality.
However, human societies have decided there are things that are more important than pure free market capitalism. For humans to survive and flourish, it is important that we continue to recognize concepts like liberty, equality, and global security in the face of free market capitalism. We can strive for efficiency, but we have to recognize that is not the only thing that matters for us. We cannot allow the world to be burned by free market capitalism, or we won’t like where we end up. The free market has fueled many evils, and it is up to humans as a collective to decide how we will continue to have a functioning market economy and prevent such evils from continuing in our lifetimes.