George Walford: Freedom of the Market

The market seems to have been with us as long as good have been produced, and much of the dissension in society has centred around it. Rulers, invaders and others have often interfered with the market and in times of shortage limitations have been applied; price restrictions, the appropriation of merchants’ supplies, sometimes rationing, but there has been no sustained attempt to establish systematic control and no serious suggestion that the market should be ended. The emergence of the socialist and communist movements as significant social influences has changed this; it has brought, according to one’s viewpoint, either the threat or the promise that the market will no longer be allowed to follow its own rules, that its operations will be planned and – more remotely – that the establishment of common ownership may put an end to the market.

As this has developed so there has arisen, largely as a reaction, a movement to defend the market and preserve its freedom. The main organised parts of this movement are conservatism and liberalism; it is conservatism that comes nearest to seeking a return to an earlier condition – the present British government is dismantling controls of which some go back to the previous century – and it may well be thought, when listening to what conservatives have to say on the subject, that they are seeking to regain for the market the freedom it formerly possessed. But when attention is paid to the context in which they are operating it is seen that although this may be what they seek it is not going to be the outcome of their efforts. The freedom the market has enjoyed through most of history is no longer one of the options.

Observing the division in the world, between the left-wing movements seeking to control the market and the right-wing movements seeking to ensure its freedom, observing the alternation of conservative and labour movements in power in Britain, it is easy to think in terms of struggle between left and right which swings one way, now another, the market now free, now controlled. This view is valid, but within limits; freedom as the market has known it in the past is no longer attainable; it disappeared for good when the need to defend it was accepted.

The market can remain free in any unqualified sense only so long as its freedom is not a matter of concern. Once theorising about it has begun – indeed, once the concept of “a free market” has arisen – its freedom is endangered, and immediately [as] attempts to control it oblige its supporters to take steps in its defence, its freedom has been lost. A market which has “just growed” may be free, but a market, even a “free” market, which has been intentionally established, or even maintained, has thereby been subjected to control.

Against the efforts of the left to impose planning and control the right supports freedom of the market. The difficulty lies in that word “supports.” The free market as it has existed down through history has no need of support, it was able to maintain itself whether favoured by a political movement or not. But once it has come to need support if it is to be free it can no longer be free except in a restricted, comparative sense. It is dependent upon its supporters and remains so even if all controls be dismantled. Once control of the market has become one of the available choices the market has lost its freedom, for to defend it against control is to impose a form of control upon it. From that point on the only question are the form and degree of control.

To put the same point in a more concrete way: In the past the market was free of intentional overall control, if only because the techniques did not exist for even the most authoritarian government to impose its will. The market has developed according to its own inherent tendencies, and the outcome has been the emergence of a movement seeking to control it. To return the market completely to its previous condition would be only to re-establish the conditions which produced the movement. If the control of the market sought by the left is to be averted the conditions of its operation must be changed, and to do that would be to exercise control over it. The choice now does not lie between freedom and control but between two types of control, that of the left, intended to subject the market to other influences, and that of the right, intended to preserve the freedom of the market. The market can now enjoy freedom only as a calculated construct, a consequence of control.

What has this to do with systematic ideology? Everything. The preferences for freedom and control of the market are ideological features, eidostatic and eidodynamic respectively. The market itself, although economists tend to speak of it as one may speak of the weather, as if it operated independently of human wishes, is an outcome of human behaviour. It is one of the means whereby social groups seek to satisfy their requirements and this is a form of volitional behaviour, therefore ideological.

from Ideological Commentary 15, December 1984.