Modern industrialized countries — those who have historically enjoyed lower levels of state interventionism — are awash in goods and services that previous generations could have only dreamed of. From dozens of vehicle manufacturers and thousands of musicians to the myriad of restaurants in modern cities and uncountable brands of food and produce that we can chose from — all this is the result of a market economy and the triumph of the entrepreneur. The healthy desire to peacefully profit by satisfying the needs of others, and the (legal) ability to do this, is what differentiates a prosperous nation from one which is not.
A simple walk or drive along the main roads of major cities around the world would overwhelm even the greatest of kings from the past: everywhere we look there is a business. The sheer abundance of supermarkets, hotels, repair shops, jewelers, concert halls, theaters, bars and pubs shows that human needs are virtually unlimited and that efficiency and a competitive spirit benefit us all.
Enemies of choice
But there are those who shy away from progress, who despise modernity and who utterly hate that modern life has become “decadent” or that contemporary society is bathing in intellectual filth. They claim that, for example, the music that most people listen to is, well, crappy. And the same goes for their entertainment choices (mind-numbing television and films devoid of intellectual value, or so it goes).
Let’s stop to think about this. Before the time where nations had open and widespread market economies, only the very rich — perhaps an aristocrat — was able to enjoy music or specialty foods. Only they had the time and the resources necessary (often collected by taxation) to live in sumptuous ways. Everyone else, on the other hand had no way to enjoy the luxuries of the high class.
Today, the average person in the U.S. specifically, and in western societies generally, has access to hundreds of TV channels, grocery stores that sell goods from all over the world, and the possibility to easily purchase music by literally pressing a few buttons on a keyboard. And while the amount of goods and services has increased, so has the range of quality. It would be myopic to think that a growing market would only cater to a specific group of people and to their exclusive taste. Unlike kings or queens, most people today would not enjoy having a Beethoven or a Mozart personally come to their home to debut their latest string quartet composition; they would perhaps prefer a CD from a Top 40 chart or some rock classic from the 70s. Yet the option of having professional musicians still exists today. There is a greater range of choices available, yes, but the ability to enjoy more (if not all, cheaply) also exists. And, of course, the classical music of the past is still around. Something for everyone.
Before we continue, we have to point out that even though people should be free to make their choices, there is an effect that is often overlooked: the change in time preference as the result of state interference, particularly democracy. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe points out,
“democracy is seen as promoting an increase in the social rate of time preference (present-orientation) or the “infantilization” of society. It results in continually increased taxes, paper money and paper money inflation, an unending flood of legislation, and a steadily growing “public” debt. By the same token, democracy leads to lower savings, increased legal uncertainty, moral relativism, lawlessness, and crime. Further, democracy is a tool for wealth and income confiscation and redistribution. It involves the legislative “taking” of the property of some — the haves of something — and the “giving” of it to others — the have-nots of things. And since it is presumably something valuable that is being redistributed — of which the haves have too much and the have-nots too little — any such redistribution implies that the incentive to be of value or produce something valuable is systematically reduced. In other words, the proportion of not-so-good people and not-so-good personal traits, habits, and forms of conduct and appearance will increase, and life in society will become increasingly unpleasant.”
Thus, when we say that people should be free to make choices based on their subjective valuations, we do not necessarily have to condone them. Instead, we must recognize that we live in an environment with higher than normal time preference and in a free society choices would be considerably different (for more on this subject, read Hoppe’s “Time Preference, Government, and the Process of Decivilization”). Having mentioned the time preference factor, we now continue our analysis.
Freedom and wealth
People living in countries with “free” economies literally have money left over; efficiency continues to improve and thus wages increase. We do not plow the fields all day to survive. Once the basic necessities have been satisfied we can move on to other needs. No longer do we have to be rich or an aristocrat to have access to entertainment, live in air-conditioned houses, or travel. We have more options now than was ever possible but elitists condemn the population for their choices and would prefer a world where fashion, music and tastes are guided by the romantic enlightenment instead of one’s preferences, or even worse, the preferences of government.
This anti-civilization attitude is dangerous and counterproductive. It aims to replace everyone’s means of creating value with government intervention. This misses a vital point about how value is created. As Michael Rozeff argued in “Why Free Markets Succeed and Governments Fail,” no one is better at creating value for the individual than that individual himself, via the free market. He further stated:
“How do free markets succeed in encouraging value creation? … As Hoppe has argued, if each of us keeps what we own without it being taken by government, each of us has the maximum incentive to increase what we own and make the best use of it so as to create value. As Mises has pointed out, free markets have prices. Prices reduce the dimensionality of the value creation problem. We can easily find out what something costs and compare it to our personal valuations. Businesses have a clear measure of success: profit or loss. Government does not. One of Rockwell’s favorite themes is that accountability and responsiveness are characteristic of business activity in free markets because of the direct link between service to buyers and profit and loss. There is no such direct link between voters and government, nor is there a clear link between a given product and a given vote. Hayek and others have emphasized that value creation requires specific knowledge that is available only to individuals, that is, it’s widely dispersed. Free markets are the natural way for individuals to bring that knowledge to bear in their choices. Mises, Rothbard and Austrian economists emphasize the role of free market entrepreneurial activity in seeking out new opportunities for value creation and bringing them to fruition. By contrast, governmental entrepreneurialism is directed at new restrictions that promote value destruction.”
To a certain extent, we have become spoiled by our own success. We seem to have forgotten that increased abundance, and the additional choices it brings, are part and parcel of freedom. There are even those among the intelligentsia who would seemingly decry choice. Some would argue, for example, that having too many choices creates frustration. Studies noted by Dr. Barry Schwartz indicate that too many choices actually make people sad! He stated as much in “A Nation of Second Guesses” from a couple of years back. While we find Dr. Schwartz’s data interesting, if not compelling, we think he misses the point somewhat. And we’re not alone. In “Don’t Attack Choice!“, fellow LRC contributor and libertarian scholar Tibor Machan states:
“I do not want to dispute these findings but point out that they are largely beside the point when the issue of wide range of selections comes into focus. But first, there is the problem, also, that it doesn’t much matter that many folks are frustrated by too many selections of ice cream or pharmaceuticals or whatever. Nothing at all follows from this. Indeed, the point of having a wide selection is not to provide various individuals with many alternatives — most individuals know pretty well the small selection of alternatives they want and can go right to where that small selection can be found. When they shop, for example, they do not go everywhere goods are on display at a grocery or department stores but merely visit the small region where their preferred selections are available. The point of having a very large selection over all is to make it possible for all varieties of individuals to find something they would need or want. It is all about individualism, the rejection of the ancient doctrine of one size fits all, not about pleasing everyone with all the selections that are produced.”
Our abundance then, is not necessarily aimed at a single individual, but all individuals. And without this abundance of choice, many individuals would not be able to have their specific needs met. The free market then, provides the best of both worlds — the proper range of choices for an individual and the proper scope of choices for all individuals! Further, in a free society there would be no one forcing people to behave in certain ways. One could literally be free to not be involved in any market choice at all and live in total autarky. Not wise, but possible, with extremely hard work. Yet the same is not true with government intervention. Our choices are limited wherever intervention exists.
The thing that all westerners should value most — if not property rights, individual liberty, the argument from morality or the non-aggression principle — is choice, and nothing does a better job of providing that wonderful opportunity to all than the free market. It’s a shame when those who seek a truly egalitarian society forget how one is created. In order to spread the abundance that spoils us all to more, it is necessary to allow all to (possibly) fail on their way to achieving it. But the allowance of failure is a secondary point. What is important, as Machan states, is that the multitude of different individuals have the best chance of getting their varied choices met. Certainly, it is better to be “overwhelmed” by the abundance of choices than to have so few that choosing is irrelevant.
Some of this “spoilage” might stem from the fact that people do not seem to understand what having a choice means anymore. This parallels quite nicely the concept of “learned stupidity” that we examined a few essays ago. In some ways, we have forgotten both how to choose and why we must be allowed to choose. Similarly, we seem to have accepted those critical areas where we have little choice. We decry the abundance of mayonnaise choices while simultaneously accepting the lack of choice in cable TV providers. Not surprisingly — at least from the perspective of Austrian economics — the reason for the abundance in one area and the dearth of choice in the other is exactly the same: the state. Where the free market is allowed to flourish, choice is abundant. Where the state seeks to “protect” the public, choice is hard to find.
To those unfamiliar with Austrian economics this might seem counterintuitive. It might seem more reasonable to think that the state’s involvement would actually preclude markets from devolving so much that only one or two companies provide a particular service. But as Rothbard noted long ago, the exact opposite is true. It is only with the cooperation, and in fact with the support of the state that monopolies can exist. Without the state’s help, any profitable market with insufficient competition is entered by new companies seeking to “join the fun” and so, the consumer benefits by way of increasing choices. Conversely, markets where additional competition is thwarted are inhabited by few firms — and generally these firms are much less responsive to consumer needs.
Visit any grocery store and you’ll find several different types of almost everything. Heck, it would not be surprising to see four choices for black olives on any visit! Four choices of olives. Seriously, who needs that much choice? But most of us only have one choice of company to provide cable television service. (Throw in satellite and one might be able to claim two choices.) Why is that? Simply put: regulation. The state, via its largely unnecessary involvement, has successfully made certain that one provider supplies everyone with something that few, if any, in most markets can do without. If you can find any example of a similar misapplication of resources in a truly free market, you’ll be the first!
The real tragedy is that by almost any measure, life is better, and “choices” are more plentiful now than in any previous time. So clearly, if choice is to survive, we must allow that which provides it to flourish: liberty.
Manuel Lora [send him mail] works at Cornell University as a TV and multimedia producer. Visit his blog. Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he’s not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.