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A free market is a market system in which the prices for goods and services are set freely by consent between sellers and consumers, in which the laws and forces of supply and demand are free from any intervention by a government, price-setting monopoly, or other authority. A free market contrasts with a controlled market or regulated market, in which government intervenes in supply and demand through non-market methods such as laws creating barriers to market entry or directly setting prices. A free market economy is a market-based economy where prices for goods and services are set freely by the forces of supply and demand and are allowed to reach their point of equilibrium without intervention by government policy, and it typically entails support for highly competitive markets and private ownership of productive enterprises. Although free markets are commonly associated with capitalism in contemporary usage and popular culture, free markets have been advocated by market anarchists, market socialists, proponents of cooperatives, and advocates of profit sharing.
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The laissez-faire principle expresses a preference for an absence of non-market pressures on prices and wages, such as those from government taxes, subsidies, tariffs, regulation (other than protection from coercion and theft), or government-granted or coercive monopolies. Friedrich Hayek argued in The Pure Theory of Capital that the goal is the preservation of the unique information contained in the price itself.
The definition of free market has been disputed and made complex by collectivist political philosophers and socialist economic ideas. This contention arose from the divergence of classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus from the continental economic science developed primarily by the Spanish scholastic and French classical economists, including Richard Cantillon, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Jean-Baptiste Say and Frédéric Bastiat. Smith discarded subjective value theory and contended that an unregulated market was prone to the rise of monopolies and was therefore not "free" in this sense.
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Various forms of socialism based on, or which advocate, free markets have existed since the 19th century. Early notable socialist proponents of free markets include Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Benjamin Tucker and the Ricardian socialists, who believed that genuinely free markets and voluntary exchange cannot exist within the exploitative conditions of capitalism.
These proposals ranged from various forms of worker cooperatives coordinated by free markets such as Mutualism (economic theory), to state-owned enterprises competing with each other in open and unregulated markets. These models of socialism are not to be confused with other forms of market socialism (e.g. the Lange model) where publicly owned enterprises are coordinated by a degree of economic planning in setting prices for capital goods.
Léon Walras, one of the founders of the neoclassical school of economics who helped formulate the general equilibrium theory, argued that free competition could only be realized under conditions of state ownership of natural resources and land. Additionally, income taxes could be eliminated because the state would receive income to finance public services through owning such resources and enterprises.
Advocates of free-market socialism, such as Jaroslav Vanek, argue that genuine free markets are not possible under conditions of private ownership over productive property because the class differences and inequalities in income and power that ensue from this arrangement enable interests of the dominant class to skew the market to their favor, either in the form of monopoly and market power, or by utilizing their wealth and resources to pass government regulations and policies that benefit their specific business interests. Additionally, Vanek states that workers in a socialist economy based on cooperative and self-managed enterprises would have stronger incentives to maximize productivity because they would receive a share of the profits (based on the overall performance of their enterprise) in addition to receiving a fixed wage or salary. Similar outcomes could be accomplished in a capitalistic free market if the employee were to purchase stock of the company they work for.
Excessive disparities in income distribution emerging from private ownership are alleged by proponents of this system to lead to social instability. This requires costly corrective measures in the form of social welfare and re-distributive taxation and heavy administrative costs to administer them, which weakens the incentive to work, invites dishonesty and increases the likelihood of tax evasion, thus necessitating government regulation over markets and reducing the overall efficiency of the market economy.
Demand for an item (such as goods or services) refers to the market pressure from people trying to buy it. Buyers have a maximum price they are willing to pay and sellers have a minimum price they are willing to offer their product. The point at which the supply and demand curves meet is the equilibrium price of the good and quantity demanded. Sellers willing to offer their goods at a lower price than the equilibrium price receive the difference as producer surplus. Buyers willing to pay for goods at a higher price than the equilibrium price receive the difference as consumer surplus.
The model is commonly applied to wages in the market for labor. The typical roles of supplier and consumer are reversed. The suppliers are individuals, who try to sell (supply) their labor for the highest price. The consumers are businesses, which try to buy (demand) the type of labor they need at the lowest price. As more people offer their labor in that market, the equilibrium wage decreases and the equilibrium level of employment increases as the supply curve shifts to the right. The opposite happens if fewer people offer their wages in the market as the supply curve shifts to the left.
In a free market, individuals and firms taking part in these transactions have the liberty to enter, leave and participate in the market as they so choose. Prices and quantities are allowed to adjust according to economic conditions in order to reach equilibrium and properly allocate resources. However, in many countries around the world, governments seek to intervene in the free market in order to achieve certain social or political agendas. Governments may attempt to create social equality or equality of outcome by intervening in the market through actions such as imposing a minimum wage (price floor) or erecting price controls (price ceiling). Other lesser-known goals are also pursued, such as in the United States, where the federal government subsidizes owners of fertile land to not grow crops in order to prevent the supply curve from further shifting to the right and decreasing the equilibrium price. This is done under the justification of maintaining farmers' profits; due to the relative inelasticity of demand for crops, increased supply would lower the price but not significantly increase quantity demanded, thus placing pressure on farmers to exit the market.
Government intervention in the free market can hamper economic growth, entrepreneurship and a healthy economy by disrupting the natural allocation of resources according to supply and demand. Milton Friedman pointed to failures of central planning, price controls and state-owned corporations, particularly in the Soviet Union and Communist China.
General equilibrium theory has demonstrated, with varying degrees of mathematical rigor over time, that under certain conditions of competition, the law of supply and demand predominates in this ideal free and competitive market, influencing prices toward an equilibrium that balances the demands for the products against the supplies. At these equilibrium prices, the market distributes the products to the purchasers according to each purchaser's preference (or utility) for each product and within the relative limits of each buyer's purchasing power. This result is described as market efficiency, or more specifically a Pareto optimum.
This equilibrating behavior of free markets requires certain assumptions about their agents, collectively known as Perfect Competition, which therefore cannot be results of the market that they create. Among these assumptions are several which are impossible to fully achieve in a real market, such as complete information, interchangeable goods and services, and lack of market power. The question then is what approximations of these conditions guarantee approximations of market efficiency, and which failures in competition generate overall market failures. Several Nobel Prizes in Economics have been awarded for analyses of market failures due to asymmetric information.
A free market does not require the existence of competition, however it does require a framework that allows new market entrants. Hence, in the lack of coercive barriers, and in markets with low entry cost it is generally understood that competition flourishes in a free-market environment. It often suggests the presence of the profit motive, although neither a profit motive or profit itself are necessary for a free market. All modern free markets are understood to include entrepreneurs, both individuals and businesses. Typically, a modern free market economy would include other features, such as a stock exchange and a financial services sector, but they do not define it.
Friedrich Hayek popularized the classical liberal view that market economies promote spontaneous order which results in a better "allocation of societal resources than any design could achieve." According to this view, in market economies are characterized by the formation of complex transactional networks which produce and distribute goods and services throughout the economy. These networks are not designed, but nevertheless emerge as a result of decentralized individual economic decisions. The idea of spontaneous order is an elaboration on the invisible hand proposed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Smith wrote that the individual who:
By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest [an individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the [common] good.—Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
Smith pointed out that one does not get one's dinner by appealing to the brother-love of the butcher, the farmer or the baker. Rather one appeals to their self-interest, and pays them for their labor.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.—Adam Smith
Supporters of this view claim that spontaneous order is superior to any order that does not allow individuals to make their own choices of what to produce, what to buy, what to sell, and at what prices, due to the number and complexity of the factors involved. They further believe that any attempt to implement central planning will result in more disorder, or a less efficient production and distribution of goods and services.
Critics, such as political economist Karl Polanyi, question whether a spontaneously ordered market can exist, completely free of "distortions" of political policy; claiming that even the ostensibly freest markets require a state to exercise coercive power in some areas – to enforce contracts, to govern the formation of labor unions, to spell out the rights and obligations of corporations, to shape who has standing to bring legal actions, to define what constitutes an unacceptable conflict of interest, etc.
The Heritage Foundation, a right wing think tank, tried to identify the key factors necessary to measure the degree of freedom of economy of a particular country. In 1986 they introduced the Index of Economic Freedom, which is based on some fifty variables. This and other similar indices do not define a free market, but measure the degree to which a modern economy is free, meaning in most cases free of state intervention. The variables are divided into the following major groups:
Each group is assigned a numerical value between 1 and 5; IEF is the arithmetical mean of the values, rounded to the hundredth. Initially, countries which were traditionally considered capitalistic received high ratings, but the method improved over time. Some economists, like Milton Friedman and other Laissez-faire economists have argued that there is a direct relationship between economic growth and economic freedom, and studies suggest this is true. Continuous debates among scholars on methodological issues in empirical studies of the connection between economic freedom and economic growth still try to find out what is the relationship, if any.
Critics of the free market have argued that, in real world situations, it has proven to be susceptible to the development of price fixing monopolies. Such reasoning has lead to government intervention, e.g. the United States antitrust law.
Two prominent Canadian authors argue that government at times has to intervene to ensure competition in large and important industries. Naomi Klein illustrates this roughly in her work The Shock Doctrine and John Ralston Saul more humorously illustrates this through various examples in The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World. While its supporters argue that only a free market can create healthy competition and therefore more business and reasonable prices, opponents say that a free market in its purest form may result in the opposite. According to Klein and Ralston, the merging of companies into giant corporations or the privatization of government-run industry and national assets often result in monopolies (or oligopolies) requiring government intervention to force competition and reasonable prices. Another form of market failure is speculation, where transactions are made to profit from short term fluctuation, rather from the intrinsic value of the companies or products.
These critics range from those who reject markets entirely, in favour of a planned economy, such as that advocated by various Marxists, to those who wish to see market failures regulated to various degrees or supplemented by government interventions. For example, Keynesians support market roles for government, such as use of fiscal policy for economy stimulus, when decisions in the private sector are believed to lead to sub-optimal economic outcomes, such as depression or recession, which manifest in widespread hardship. Business cycle theory is used by Keynes to explain 'liquidity traps' by which under consumption occurs, to argue for government intervention with central banking. Free market economists consider this credit-expansion as the cause of the business cycle in refutation of this Keynesian criticism.