The Routine Subversion of the Free Market

Worship of the “unfettered free market” has been the fetish of conservatives from their first days, under the mistaken assumption that any sort of control means less freedom, and is therefore bad. But what we find is that free market conservatives themselves routinely subvert the freedom of the market for their own gain. In many cases, if not most, this subversion detracts from the wellbeing of society as a whole, and sometimes even subverts conservatives’ own goals.

Free market conservatives routinely subvert
the freedom of the market for their own gain.

Take a look at the unintended consequences of one of the signature achievements of Bill Clinton’s administration, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Clinton himself laments the entire agreement, which has brought poverty to millions. Why? Because, as he soon learned, “free trade” between two countries is not free when one of them subsidizes its products. Corporate agriculture in the US receives many millions yearly in government subsidies. Naturally, when Mexico was compelled by NAFTA to buy our subsidized corn, the farmers there could not compete. In Mexico and elsewhere, millions of small farmers were bankrupted by NAFTA, which gave rise to great numbers of desperately poor undocumented Mexicans seeking work in the US, which in turn gave rise to a whole series of ugly immigration laws and nasty attitudes toward these hard-working people. Similar things happened in Haiti and elsewhere. Essentially, I don’t believe the US should ever enter into trade agreements, because our corporations will always do their best to stack the deck in their own favor.

There are many organizations of commercial groups representing specific industries, and the purpose of each and every one of them is to gain some advantage in the so-called “free market”. For each and every one of their successes, however, the free market is subverted and made less free for others, because “free market” by definition requires that no specific person or group should have an advantage over the others. This trend is further worsened by laws sponsored or supported by corporate groups, which they accomplish by spending millions daily on lobbying, and on providing legislatures with custom made bills via groups like ALEC.

For each success of a trade group,
the free market is subverted and made less free.

One of the fundamental goals of conservative traders of all sorts is to minimize all limits on their activities in order to increase profit—the primary goal of capitalism—which is the same goal as seeking advantage, but seen from another angle. But when a restriction intended to protect the common welfare is removed, that can put one group at an advantage and another at a disadvantage, subverting the free market. For example, weakening an environmental restriction on discharge of polluted waste water could put some at an advantage because those whose methods do not result in polluted waste water will then probably cost more. Those who would pollute would gain profit and may bring bankruptcy to those who do not, and the added pollution diminishes the wellbeing of everyone.

Consider urban traffic. The overcrowding and slow movement of people and goods in cities is time consuming and wasteful for both commerce and the citizenry. But we know at least one very effective way to maximize the flow of people and goods: maximize the efficiency of mass transit. When mass transit works well, other traffic diminishes sharply and commercial efficiency is markedly improved.

Unfortunately, a primary goal of free-market conservatives is to minimize all government, including such things as mass transit. In this case, when government mass transit is minimized, the goals of commercial efficiency and profit are compromised and money is lost because of the costly excess of traffic. The free market is subverted along with industry’s goal of efficiency.


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