The idea of market failure is a widely believed misconception which has found widespread use in statist propaganda for the purpose of justifying government intervention in the private sector. Though the term itself has only been in use since 1958, the concept can be traced back to Henry Sidgwick. It is used to describe a situation in which the allocation of goods and services is Pareto inefficient. This occurs when the rational self-interest of individuals is at odds with the optimal outcome for a collective. Such a situation is frequently blamed on conflicts of interest, factor immobility, information asymmetry, monopolies, negative externalities, public goods, and/or time-inconsistent preferences. Among these, monopolies, negative externalities, and public goods receive the most attention from mainstream economists.
But let us pause to consider what a market is. A market is a structure that allows buyers and sellers to exchange goods, services, and information. The participants in the market for a particular commodity consist of everyone who influences the price of that commodity. To say that a market has failed is to say that this process of assembling the information about a commodity which is reflected in its price and its change over time has failed. But the causes listed above are either inconsistent with a free market or unresolvable by interventions which bind the market. Let us explore this in detail.
While monopolies are frequently blamed for market failures, a monopoly in a particular market is typically the result of government intervention which has raised barriers to entry in that market. Through a vicious cycle of regulatory capture, larger businesses can put smaller competitors out of business by bribing politicians and regulators to favor the former and harm the latter. This continues until a market is effectively monopolized. Therefore, this type of monopoly is actually a government failure rather than a market failure.
Another type of monopoly can occur when there are natural barriers to entry, such as the need to build vast amounts of infrastructure in order to provide a good or service. This can give the first entrant into a market an insurmountable advantage. Consumers may then complain that this monopolist is abusing them rather than show gratitude that they are getting a service which was formerly nonexistent. But if the monopolist were really overcharging, then it would become feasible for another provider to either challenge the monopoly directly or provide an alternative service. This type of monopoly is actually a market signal that a particular good or service would be better provided by another means, and entrepreneurs should look for those means.
Third, a monopoly can arise in a free market if one business satisfies all consumers of a good or service to such an extent that no one cares to compete against them. This kind of monopoly is not a market failure, but an astonishing market success.
This leaves only the ‘public goods’ argument, which merits its own section.
Public goods and services are those whose consumption cannot be limited to paying customers. It is frequently argued that this produces waste in the form of unnecessary duplication and excess costs born by those who are not free riders. There is also the matter that non-excludable and rivalrous resources in a commons may be depleted without intervention. The latter can only be fully resolved by eliminating the commons, as restoring exclusive control to the resource is the only method of eliminating the perverse incentives created by a commons. The concerns over free riding and unnecessary duplication ignore incentives, prove too much, and commit the broken window fallacy.
If we wish to have a rational discussion, it is essential to define terms. A problem is an undesirable situation which can be remedied. This is because a situation which is not undesirable presents no problem to solve, and an undesirable situation which has no remedy is just a fact which must be tolerated. The free rider “problem” is a situation of the latter type, as it is impractical to make sure that everyone pays exactly what they should pay for the amount of public goods that they consume. That government monopolies destroy competition, and thus the market price system, makes the free rider “problem” impossible to solve, as the information needed to determine how much each person should pay for the amount of public goods that they consume is destroyed beyond repair.
If taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that no one should be able to consume more than or pay for less than their fair share of a public good means that the state should be eliminated, as the very presence of a state means that some people are consuming more than and paying for less than their fair share of the total wealth in the economy, as states are funded by coercive means which violate private property rights. Those who receive government welfare payments, bailouts, grants, or any other form of government funding are free riding upon the backs of taxpayers and anyone else who uses currency printed by a government’s central bank. The latter group of people are forced riders who are required to pay for public goods from which they receive insufficient benefit. Charity would also be unjustifiable if the concept of the free rider problem is taken to its logical conclusion, as those who receive charity are not paying the full cost for what they are using.
But suppose we ignore this as well. If we accept for the sake of argument that there are public goods and that no one should be able to consume more than or pay for less than their fair share of a public good, then the result will be a massive distortion of the economy, as both the state and private charity must go. While the demise of statism is nothing to lament, the absence of any form of private charity would lead to the very sort of Hobbesian war that statists fear and think that they are preventing. It must also be noted that the money for payments for public goods which are now being made was once being put toward another purpose. Whether that purpose was spending on other goods and services or investment (which is really just another form of spending), the diversion of spending away from these purposes and toward public goods will eliminate some other economic activities that were occurring.
Nearly all competitive production involves supposedly wasteful duplication, in that each provider must have the infrastructure necessary to produce that which is being provided. But if the duplication is truly wasteful, the market signals this by rendering the wasteful duplication unprofitable. Government intervention interferes with such signals, and government control over an industry completely eliminates them, leading to far worse government failures than any failure of the market.
A problem related to public goods is the problem of externalities, in which costs or benefits affect a party who did not choose to incur those costs or benefits. When firms do not pay the full cost of production, each unit costs less to produce than it should, resulting in overproduction.
The most frequent examples given are pollution, traffic congestion, and overuse of natural resources, but all of these contain externalities because the market has been prevented by governments from internalizing the costs. Air and water pollution are externalities because government intervention on behalf of polluters has eliminated the common law system of private property rights with regard to pollution. Before the Industrial Revolution, pollution was correctly viewed as an act of aggression against people and their property. Those victimized could sue for damages and obtain injunctions against further pollution. Polluters and victims can also bargain to reach an optimal level of both production and pollution. Additionally, the victims would be justified in using violence in self-defense against polluters, though this is an historical rarity. But government monopolization of environmental regulation has prevented these market solutions from being implemented. Therefore, pollution is a government failure rather than a market failure.
Traffic congestion is another tragedy of the commons that causes externalities in the form of pollution, wasted fuel, and lost time. But this is another case in which governments have monopolized a good and produced it out of accordance with market demand. Without competing private firms to build different traffic systems in search of more efficient ones and without private property rights determining location and control over the transportation system, we are left with a non-excludable good that is incentivized toward overuse. Attempted solutions of congestion pricing, mass transit, and tolls mitigate some effects, but not to the extent that private service providers might implement such methods. Again, we have government failure at work.
A third example of externalities occurs with overuse of natural resources, such as fish and lumber. But once more, we see government intervention against private property mechanisms creating problems. Because state personnel in modern democracies do not personally benefit from maintaining the value of state-controlled property and work almost solely with the usufruct thereof, they are incentivized to engage in bribery and corruption. When states sell only the resource rights but not the territory itself, they get a renewable source of income. But firms that harvest renewable resources can abuse this system, stripping the resource bare then vanishing when it is time to replenish. These ‘fly-by-night’ lumber companies, fishers, and other such exploiters lead to the fast demise of resources which were harvested and preserved for centuries prior to state intervention. In short, government fails yet again.
Before moving on, a quick word about positive externalities is in order. This is another way of talking about the free rider problem, so the same criticisms discussed above apply. But we should also consider the benefits of free riders. Although some people will argue that free riders are responsible for higher costs, they are actually signaling that a good or service is overpriced. While degenerate freeloaders do exist, most free riders who are aware of their free riding are willing to pay for what they are receiving but believe that said goods or services are overpriced. In the state-enforced absence of another provider, they choose to “pirate” the public goods rather than pay the cost which they believe to be too expensive. If there are rational, knowledgeable people in charge of a public good that has many free riders, then they will respond by lowering the cost to convince more people to contribute, which can actually raise the total contribution.
The above result is rare, of course, as rational, knowledgeable people tend to be productive rather than become part of the state apparatus. The more useful role of free riders is to crash government programs which cannot be ended by normal political means. Most government programs help a few people by a large magnitude while harming a much larger number of people by a much smaller amount. This means that an irate and tireless minority will work to keep their sacred cow from being gored, while the majority is not being harmed enough to take action to end the harm. Thus, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government program, and it is politically impossible to abolish entitlement and welfare programs. While the strategy of overloading such programs was first proposed by leftists who wished to replace them with far more expansive redistributions of wealth, it could also be used by libertarian-minded people who wish to replace such programs with nothing.
The less-discussed causes of market failure are conflicts of interest, factor immobility, information asymmetry, and time-inconsistent preferences. This is mostly because government intervention is more widely known to either cause these problems or fail to solve them. Conflicts of interest typically occur when an agent has a self-interest which is at odds with the principal that the agent is supposed to serve. For example, a lawyer may advise his client to enter protracted legal proceedings not because it is best for the client, but because it will generate more income for the lawyer. A politician may vote for a law not because it is in the best interest of the people in her district, but because she was bribed by lobbyists who support the law. The only solution to a conflict of interest is to recuse oneself from the conflict, and government offers no answer, especially since it inherently operates on conflict of interest.
Factor immobility occurs when factors of production, such as land, capital, and labor, cannot easily move between one area of the economy and another. This sometimes occurs due to malinvestment caused by government distortions of the economy; in other cases, it results from technological advancement that puts an industry into obsolescence. In any event, government regulations frequently make it more difficult to change occupations and maneuver capital than it would be in a free market. Interventions to help workers in a declining field typically fall victim to the knowledge problem; it cannot accurately retrain workers or educate future workers because it cannot know what the economy will need by the time the retraining or education is complete.
Information asymmetry occurs when some parties in a transaction has more and/or better information than others. This creates a power disparity which is sometimes called a market failure in the worst cases. Common sub-types of information asymmetry include adverse selection and moral hazard. Adverse selection occurs when one party lacks information while negotiating a contract, while moral hazard involves a lack of information about performance or an inability to obtain appropriate relief for a breach of contract. These cases are made worse by government laws, as laws can lead to both adverse selection and moral hazard. For example, an insurance firm that is legally disallowed from discriminating against high-risk customers is itself put at a higher risk through no fault or will of its own, being unable to turn away those who cost the most to insure or cancel insurance policies for reckless behavior by the insured. Fortunately, there are market methods for resolving informational asymmetries, such as rating agencies.
Time-inconsistent preferences occur when people make decisions which are inconsistent with expected utility. For example, one might choose to have ten ounces of gold today rather than eleven ounces tomorrow. Time preferences are expressed economically through interest rates, in that interest rates are the premium placed upon having something now rather than waiting for it. Governments interfere with interest rates through central bank monetary policies, leading to alterations of time preference that can be inconsistent. This is still another example of government failure rather than market failure.
Another possibility for market failure which is rarely discussed is that of resource failure. If an economy becomes dependent upon a certain non-renewable resource, that resource becomes scarce, and there is no viable alternative, the result can be devastating not only to markets, but to peoples’ lives as a whole. For example, if peak oil occurs and there is no alternative energy source available to meet the energy demands fulfilled by fossil fuels, a market failure will occur due to resource failure. Another historical example is the destruction of trees on Easter Island. Resource failure is generally not amenable to government policy, and may be exacerbated by it if subsidies alter the market to keep it from finding the best solution to a resource shortage.
The last type of failure is not a market failure at all, but a failure by a critic to understand the nature of the market. Consumer demand does not drive the economy; capital investment does. The over-reliance on gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of economic output has fooled many people into believing otherwise, but GDP neglects intermediate production at the commodity, manufacturing, and wholesale stages of production. As such, consumer demand and spending are an effect of a healthy economy and not the cause.
With this in mind, the idea that the market has somehow failed when it does not produce everything that a particular person might want and deliver it exactly where they want it for a cost that the person finds agreeable is ridiculous. A person levying this criticism should be advised to check their hubris. If a certain good or service is not produced in a free market, it is because such production is not sufficiently worthwhile for anyone to make a living through doing so. The fact that everyone gets by without that good or service indicates that no failure has taken place. Those who desire that good or service so much should make an effort to provide it so that they can have it.
The entire idea of market failures is based on Pareto efficiency. But there is no reason why we must choose Pareto efficiency as the measure of market success. One could just as well define market efficiency as the degree to which it permits its participants to achieve their individual goals. (Note that these are equivalent if the conditions of the first welfare theorem are met.) Another possible standard is that of productive efficiency, which is optimized when no additional production can occur without increasing the amount of resources, time, and/or labor involved in production. An economy with maximum productive efficiency cannot produce more of one good without producing less of another good.
In every case, that which appears to be a market failure is actually a failure of government policy, natural resource management, or economic understanding. We may therefore reject the very idea of market failure as yet another form of statist propaganda.