The United States loves free market capitalism. Almost any political action that would raise taxes, introduce tariffs on foreign goods, or regulate an industry is met with incredible pushback and extreme rhetoric. Most people don’t have a great sense of what communism or socialism really are, but those terms are used extensively whenever the government proposes a new regulation or program that might interfere with a market. Free market capitalism is the heart of the United States, at least in rhetoric.
However, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “there is simply no such thing as a market free of all political bias.” Markets on their own are not perfect. Clickbait headlines and designed obsolescence of smartphones are two frustrating examples of imperfect markets. In both instances, unequal information and misaligned financial incentives provide motivation for the producer to provide sub-par products. These examples are relatively harmless, but they do contribute to a larger problem within markets – a lack of trust between consumers and producers.
Harari continues, “the most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans. Markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft, and violence.” Clickbait headlines have made me distrust internet links and headlines that sound juicy. I make it a point to never click on a Yahoo! article after being burned too many times by clickbait headlines when I was younger. I simply don’t trust what appears to be valuable information on the internet – a problem that has larger spillover effects as our population comes to distrust any information. In terms of smartphones, government regulation actually did play a role in changing the problem of designed obsolescence. Apple was deliberately slowing down older devices in an attempt to force users to buy newer devices – Apple claimed they had to slow phones down to prevent battery degradation and damage to the devices (eye roll). The result has been better performance of older smartphones for a longer lifetime.
“It is the job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against cheats and to establish and support … the law.” We make investments and purchase goods when we can trust the market actors and that our investment will payoff in the future. I continue to purchase Apple products because I have seen an improvement in the problems of designed obsolescence and devices failing to function after just a year. Market intervention from the government helped stabilize the market and ensure that consumers had access to better products. However, I still don’t click on many articles, especially if the headline sounds like clickbait. I still don’t have trust in internet information, a space that the government has done little to regulate. The market on its own hasn’t established that trust, and as a result I make deliberate attempts to avoid the market. Free market capitalism, in these two examples, actually seems to work a bit better when there is some regulation and intervention, something that seems to contradict the general idea surrounding markets in the United States.
“Those who profit from the current situation – and those indifferent to it – will say that the housing market should be left alone to regulate itself. They don’t really mean that,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. In the world that Desmond investigated, the world of low-income housing, the ones who don’t think any government action needs to be taken to regulate or stabilize the market are the landlords and people able to make money from slum housing. The people exploiting market failures and extracting rents say they don’t want any changes in housing policy because they favor a free market, but what Desmond’s quote hints at is that they don’t really exist within a free-market, and they currently profit from existing government action (not just inaction) on housing policy.
The quote from Desmond reminds me of senior citizens who protest changes to Medicare with signs that say “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” seemingly unaware that Medicare is a government run health program. The line between government and markets is not always clear to people, and what people actually want in terms of government market regulation doesn’t always line up with people’s stated political beliefs or stated beliefs about government intervention. We can have high minded opinions about the proper role of government relative to markets, and we sound better and more impressive when we do, but the bottom line is that we are all likely driven more by our own self-interest than our high minded opinions of governments and markets.
I am currently listening to Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography on audiobook. I am struck by how our nation’s founding fathers quickly broke down into self-interested policy quarrels that were couched in high minded political rhetoric, but seemed to perfectly back the self-interest of the given founding father. Jefferson in particular seemed to be a master of this kind of deception, arguing that America should have a minimal government and reflect a populist standpoint. However, Jefferson owned slaves and had a vast agrarian plantation and his policies seemed to clearly favor his own lifestyle. His actions can be well understood when viewed through the lens of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson who suggest that most of our behavior is signaling and that we generally (and deceptively) act on self-interest more than we would ever admit.
All of this is to suggest that most people don’t really have any independent and objective views of government regulations of markets. Desmond’s quote about housing markets shows that people are driven by self-interest, that they discount regulations that favor their financial interests, and that they misrepresent government policies that make them better off. When our own self-interest, our own bottom line, and our social status are on the line, we are willing to compromise our high minded positions to adopt the view that is expedient to our own interests. This was true of Jefferson and Hamilton in the first Presidential Administration after the adoption of the Constitution, and it is true today in housing, Medicare, and other government and market areas. Landlords, real-estate agents, and others who currently profit in the housing market are in favor of government tax breaks on mortgage interest, of housing vouchers, and other policies that help ensure people can afford high rents. They view the market as being free without fully acknowledging these interventions and how they benefit from them.
A line from John Hudak’s book Marijuana: A Short History
is worth thinking about if we are someone who frequently thinks about public policy. Hudak writes, “The black market just has to deliver marijuana; the legal market must meet consumer demand.”
Hudak’s line comes from an early paragraph in his book where he discusses historical trends in the strength of marijuana overtime. Marijuana strength is often measured by the amount of THC in the final product to be consumed. Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, a researcher with the University of Mississippi, has been analyzing the THC content in seized marijuana since the 1970’s and has found that THC content has increased overtime from about 3% to 7-8%. However, marijuana that can now be purchased in dispensaries in states that have legalized marijuana often has a much higher THC content, closer to 20% or more.
My interest is not so much in the marijuana itself, although the plant and product is interesting (Note: I have asthma and can’t smoke and I have never tried any edible forms of marijuana). What is really interesting is the degree to which the black market under-served those who wanted to purchase marijuana from 1970 to today. Marijuana that could be purchased from a drug dealer or a friend was not as potent as people would have liked. If people were intent to buy marijuana, their only option was a product that we would consider inferior to the options available in states that have legalized marijuana today, a product that many likely wouldn’t chose if they’d been able to chose an alternative product.
The point I want to highlight is not that people were purchasing weak marijuana from the 1970’s until 2019 when Hudak’s book was published. Instead, the point I am trying to make is that the black market delivers sub-par products to people who use them. In the case I am writing about, illegal supplies of marijuana were simply less potent, not something that non-marijuana users are likely to care much about. However, if we think about other black markets, we should be more concerned about the products that people purchase illegally. Other black market products, that people cannot obtain legally and that cannot be regulated by a true market mechanism, likely come with more dangers than just being weak. Other illicit drugs can be even more dangerous and harmful when purchased on the black market. Health products, purchased on the black market where they might be cheaper than licensed and regulated products obtained legally, could also pose serious risks of harm.
This creates an argument for reasonably regulated markets, even of things we find deviant and would rather people be unable to purchase. We want some type of government oversight to ensure that products and services are safe, effective, and authentic, but we should be concerned about government regulation that drives a product or service into a black market. The market itself will find a way to deliver the service or product, but it may do so in a dangerous and illicit manner. Government and regulation can be forces for good and bad within this dynamic. What is important is that we think critically of how regulation relates to markets, and consider the impact on people’s lives, including the lives of those who will still pursue a product or service once it is forced to a black market.