Libertarians Can Criticize Market Actions – Misconceptions

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A common tactic of anti-capitalists against libertarians is to point out alleged hypocrisy whenever a libertarian is critical of a non-coercive outcome. They hear some libertarians praise decentralized, voluntary decision making, while also hearing other or the same libertarians voice their dislike of some of these decisions. From this, they conclude hypocrisy.

What’s worse is that this weak train of thought is even tossed around by some libertarians against others. For some reason, they seem to think that a libertarian society means that every single market decision is approved of by everyone (an impossibility if value is subjective). If one criticizes an action done by a private company, sooner or later they will be reminded that “it’s a private company, they can do whatever they want!”

This accusation, if stated by a libertarian to other libertarians, is self-refuting. The market is not simply private companies. The market is a system of individual action and incentives. An individual deciding who to trade with (and who not to trade with) is involved in the market, as is the boycotter. Therefore, to criticize someone for criticizing an action within the market is to criticize an action within the market!

When people loudly voice their discontent for the actions of a business, they are letting their preferences be known. That business can take that information into account, or it can ignore it. An entrepreneur may see this discontent as a demand that needs supplied, and take this opportunity to start his own venture. This is how the market works.

Complaints, boycotts, and criticism are a permanent part of any market society. Utopians look forward to perfection. Realists look to a better society. No reasonable free marketeer sees the market as perfect. Even anarcho-capitalists see the market as flawed and imperfect. But the question then becomes, “Compared to what?” The free marketeer supports the free market not because it is perfect, but because it is better (either morally or consequentially, or both) than a system with state intervention.

Anyone that has ever used the #NotAll argument must be aware that every system, organization, and individual person is flawed. At a certain point, something can have so many flaws that it is no longer good. Or it can be inherently flawed. But nobody would hold such an impossibly high standard that one business making one decision that at least one person disapproves of is a refutation of libertarianism or the free market.

It is the mindset of an authoritarian that assumes that criticism of the market implies the state should get involved, or that a non-market solution must be used. There are many methods of solving a problem within the free market. Many problems are exacerbated by non-market solutions rather than cured. 

In addition, some problems will simply continue to exist, and are tolerable. People love to look for things to complain about. Just as murder is terrible and intolerable, we do in a sense “tolerate” a certain level of murder by conceding that it will never drop down to zero, and being above zero is not a justification for overthrowing all of society in exchange for something entirely new. Complaining about a problem is a call to address it, but it is not a call for revolution against an entire system.

Some truly beautiful and great things come from the free market. It is also inherently the most moral system, since it is non-coercive. It isn’t perfect, but the decentralization of the market allows for a diversity of solutions and situations that continue to solve the many problems we face. Every other system will produce inferior results. The free market can simultaneously be an imperfect system as well as the best system.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]