Mar 5, 2014

The Unpredictability of Freedom

I wanted to share a great article I read from The Ludwig von Mises Institute by Gary Galles:

We Cannot Predict the Many Ways Freedom Will Improve Our Lives 

In the article, Galles discusses a tactic that is often used against proponents of freedom when advocating for an unfettered marketplace. These people would like to hear a detailed analysis from points A to Z- a symptom of their flawed "planner" mentality. Galles points out the absurdity of this approach:

"In the face of such questions, it is nonetheless important to recognize that such questions are rhetorical traps designed to put an unachievable burden of proof on voluntary arrangements, short-circuiting the need to deal with the many valid criticisms of coercive policies.

The trap works because answers to such questions are beyond our competence. But that does not mean statism wins by default. It only means that detailed prediction of what would happen in a future where some government-imposed constraints on freedom are eased is beyond anyone’s knowledge."

Later, Galles offers a few examples of progress which occurred in the market:

"To see this, simply reflect on what freedom has produced in the past. The miracles that freedom has produced, unknown in advance, offer overwhelming testimony for faith in freedom.
For example, compare the Post Office with any other form of communication. Its snail’s pace changes contrast with advances in digital communication possibilities beyond even recent fantasies. In fact, freedom has produced miracles all around us whose nature we fail to understand, because we now take them for granted and forget their genesis (e.g., in a world of digital copying, few remember the lost “joys” of carbon paper and its purple progeny).
We need only revisit the revolutions involved to see that no one ever knew exactly what would happen beforehand. If people had only pursued what could be clearly foreseen, none of those miracles would have happened and we would be immeasurably poorer."(Emphasis added.)

Another example of an unplanned invention is the "sticky note", as described by Wikipedia:

"In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M in the United States, was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive, but instead he accidentally created a 'low-tack', reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive that has been characterized as 'a solution without a problem'. For five years, Silver promoted his invention within 3M, both informally and through seminars, but without much success.

In 1974, a colleague of his, Art Fry, who had attended one of Silver's seminars, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook.  Fry then developed the idea by taking advantage of 3M's officially sanctioned "permitted bootlegging" policy.  3M launched the product in stores in 1977 in four cities under the name 'Press 'n Peel', but its results were disappointing.  A year later, in 1978, 3M issued free samples to residents of Boise, Idaho, and 94 percent of the people who tried them said that they would buy the product.  On April 6, 1980, the product debuted in US stores as 'Post-It Notes'."

While Galles is correct in pointing out how a free market is wonderfully spontaneous, it is important to remember that many libertarian scholars have visualized a truly free market in great detail.  Walter Block discusses the concept of removing the government's monopoly on transportation in his book, The Privatization of Roads and Highways.1  Murray Rothbard discusses the privatization of courts and police, among many other things, in For a New Liberty.

 "Ra ta ta ta!"

When faced with a reasoned presentation of the workability of free choice in various aspects of life, many skeptics of the free market will make an intellectual "final stand", fixating on the caricatured notion of the "greedy capitalist".  This emotional appeal is typically based in jealousy of those who have acquired large sums of wealth, rather than a sincere desire to improve the standard of living.  Indeed, in a system of capitalism, cascades of wealth will be generated by those who invent useful products, and head up the companies which produce them!  This is a result of consumers clamoring to acquire the things that are deemed important to them, and impeccable foresight by some in bringing precisely the right goods and/or services to market in the right place and at the right time.  Anyone with gumption and inventiveness can achieve such grandeur, and those who have it can only hold on to their status by continuing to woo the consumer with relevant products and/or services produced in a productive, and efficient manner.

A centrally planned economic system cannot altruistically purge from the human spirit the inherent motivator often referred to as "greed".  Rather, such an economy can only result in entrenching those who serve the omnipresent state, as political leaders and powerful business interests engage in a continuum of backscratching.  Even worse, the coercive nature of the centrally planned economy means that those producers who are not "in the loop" are forced to the black market- where eager consumers are made to suffer through artificially lower quality products, shortages, and high-risk transactions.  In short, central planning results in an environment in which the unscrupulous thrive- in both the "legal" market and the black market, innovation and price deflation are stymied by coercive monopoly, and consumers and producers who wish to engage in voluntary market transactions can be transformed into criminals.  In contrast, a free market embraces the human condition- and achieves the maximum improvement to the standard of living in societies who embrace it- as "greedy" consumers constantly demand lower prices, innovation, and abundance from "greedy" producers who fall all over themselves to most adequately provide the goods and services the consumers desire!


1.  Both of the books in this paragraph are graciously offered for free at in PDF form.

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