Best days of the free market are over

Graeme Maxton says after being sidelined in a modern era dominated by marauding free marketeers, good governance must now make a comeback and save society from ruin

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 2:45am


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Free marketeers, please take a bow. It is time for you to let those with other ideas take centre stage. Let's hear it for the free marketeers!

The free market has been a wonder of our age. Its ideas have been like some remarkable scientific breakthrough that transformed the world. The free market propelled America and the West to global economic dominance, and allowed hundreds of millions of people in China and elsewhere to prosper. It won the 20th century.

But the free market's best time is now behind it. It has made all the easy gains and, after so many years of glorious progress, it is running out of steam. With its principles fully established, it has little new to say. The free market is getting old; in the face of new challenges, its magic is fading.

The free market is still the best way we know to allocate many resources. It ensures goods and services are delivered to those who need them in the most efficient way, for the lowest possible price.

Moreover, it strives to improve this process continuously, making the system ever leaner and driving prices ever lower. By making each dollar go further, this makes us better off and so improves our standard of living.

The free market is also exceptional in that it not only pushes down prices, but raises profits too. It serves everyone by stimulating growth, supporting investment and aiding human development. It is also astonishingly flexible, with the ability to respond to the changing needs of the market without falling apart. The system is fair too, or at least mostly fair. It rewards those who are efficient and competitive, while stragglers are swiftly killed off.

The free market has its limits, however. It works best when focused on the short term, and where returns can be monetised easily. It is great at meeting the needs of end consumers, like you and me.

But it tends to work less well when it is expected to provide basic infrastructure, like roads, railways or airports. It is also less than perfect when it is asked to provide universal services, like schooling or defence. And it fails completely when there are disasters like Fukushima, where there is a 40-year clean-up, life-threatening risks and little sense in allowing people to profit.

The free market also fails in many other ways. Because it depends on little or no regulation, it has allowed the finance sector and others to manipulate markets. It has also allowed whole industrial sectors to become dominated by a handful of firms. It has not stopped the property business in Hong Kong from being controlled by a few overly close tycoons. Most troubling of all, it is a major cause of many of the biggest and most intractable problems we now face.

Because it focuses on the short term and on price, the free market has ignored many of its own nasty consequences. It has had nothing to say as the gap between rich and poor has grown, in the US, mainland China and Hong Kong. It has brushed the cost of nature aside, allowing forests to be chopped down, seas to be emptied of fish and species to be wiped out, because the free market gave them no meaningful value.

It also has little to contribute when there is persistently high unemployment, as there is in much of the world today. Most bothersome, the free market is useless when it comes to something as big as climate change, a problem which needs global action today to allow those living 30 years in the future to prosper.

To address these challenges needs an understanding, not from the ground up but from the top down, from those who can see the bigger picture and take the long-term interests of society and the planet into account.

It needs rules and leadership and vision. It needs good governance, and the biggest trouble the free market has brought us is that most people cannot now imagine these two words - "good" and "governance" - ever being together again.

But they do work well together. They work in Germany and they worked in Singapore for many years. They have also worked extremely well in mainland China and Hong Kong for most of the past 30 years.

But now they need to work harder. We need more and better governance again. It is time for the credits to roll and for the free marketeers to gallop off into the sunset. They were heroes. But they cannot help us as they once did.

Graeme Maxton is the author of The End of Progress and a fellow of the Club of Rome