Markets and Morality
While we’ve covered several topics, one that keeps recurring is the question of whether it is appropriate to think in terms of “right” and “wrong” when it comes to evaluating the outcome of the operating of a free market economy. As I’ve said in the comments to all three of these posts, I think the answer to that question is no.
As Mises and Hayek taught us, the free market is, in reality, nothing more than a reflection of the decisions made on a daily basis by untold numbers of consumers and business people reacting to factors ranging from price to taste to whatever happens to be in fashion or popular at a given point in time. As such, I think its entirely mistaken to speak of market outcomes in terms of whether they are “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, they just *are*. They are not moral judgments, they don’t reflect artistic merit (the fact that Britney Spears outsells Diana Krall doesn’t mean she’s more talented), and they don’t necessarily mean that one product is objectively suprior to another (because sometimes an obviously inferior product ends up beating superior competitors in the marketplace). Assuming that they either can or do reflect any of these things leads inevitably to the idea that its possible for one person or group to know better than consumers and that something must be done to fix the “wrong” choices that consumers make.
Much of our discussion today has centered around Microsoft and its allegedly negative impact on the market for operating systems. But do we really know this to be true ? It would be impossible for any one of us to second guess the market bercause there isn’t any way we can know that things would be better if Microsoft had “played fair” (although I don’t concede the argument that they’ve done anything inherently unfair). A market economy is made up of hundreds of millions of players, each of whom acts based on the information available to them. To say that one person, or group of people, knows better than the people who make up the economy is to adopt the same premises as the central planners. The reason that the free market economy works, though, is because it recognizes that no single person or group can know enough to control the economy in any rational sense.
Personally, I have no idea if we’d all be better off if Microsoft wasn’t the dominant player in the OS market. While there might be more choices, a large number of choices could arguably have impeded the adoption of the PC as a mass market commodity. Furthermore, there are alot of reasons to believe that if Windows didn’t exist, someone would have to create it, or at least some kind of standard operating system that vendors, consumers, and software writers could work with. Imagine what the auto industry would be like if every manufacturer’s cars needed fundamentally different types of fuel. The likelihood that anyone of them would acheive “critical mass” is unlikely, unless one of them came to dominate the others for some reason or another and became the de facto standard. That’s precisely what happened in the OS market.