Free market economics is closely associated with laissez-faire economic philosophy, which advocates approximating this condition in the real world by mostly confining government intervention in economic matters to regulating against force and fraud among market participants. Hence, with government force limited to a defensive role, government itself does not initiate force in the marketplace beyond levying taxes in order to fund the maintenance of the free marketplace. Some free market advocates oppose taxation as well, claiming that the market is better at providing all valuable services of which defense and law are no exception, and that such services can be provided without direct taxation. Anarcho-capitalists, for example, would substitute arbitration agencies and private defense agencies.
While some economists regard the free market as a useful if simplistic model in developing economic policies to attain social goals, others regard the free market as a normative rather than descriptive concept, and claim that policies which deviate from the ideal free market solution are 'wrong' even if they are believed to have some immediate social benefit. Samuelson treated market failure as the exception to the general rule of efficient markets.
In political economics, one opposite extreme to the free market economy is the command economy, where decisions regarding production, distribution, and pricing are a matter of governmental control. Other opposites are the gift economy and the subsistence economy. The mixed economy is intermediate between these positions.
In social philosophy, a free market economy is a system for allocating goods within a society: purchasing power mediated by supply and demand within the market determines who gets what and what is produced, rather than the state. Early proponents of a free-market economy in 18th century Europe contrasted it with the medieval, early modern, and mercantilist economies which preceded it.
When demand exceeds supply, suppliers can raise the price. Consumers who can afford the higher prices may still buy, but others may forgo the purchase altogether, buy a similar item, or shop elsewhere. (e.g., the consumer might say: "A two-dollar hot dog? I'd rather buy a hamburger at McDonald's!"). As the price rises, suppliers may also choose to increase production. Or more suppliers may enter the business. For example, the gourmet coffee business, pioneered by Starbucks, revealed a demand for boutique, three-dollar cups of coffee. Other stores began offering such coffee to satisfy the demand.
Increased supply (meaning volume) can indirectly result in lower prices, particularly with computers and other electronic devices. Mass production techniques have been steadily reducing prices 20 to 30% per year since the 1960s. The functions of a multi-million dollar mainframe computer in the 1960s could be performed by a $500 dollar computer in the 2000s. The camcorder has been said to place "a television studio in your hand".
"intends only his own gain is 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." (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 labour.
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.
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.
This equilibrating behavior of free markets makes certain assumptions about their agents, for instance that they act independently. Some models in econophysics have shown that when agents are allowed to interact locally in a free market (ie. their decisions depend not only on utility and purchasing power, but also on their peers' decisions), prices can become unstable and diverge from the equilibrium, often in an abrupt manner.The behavior of the free market is thus said to be non-linear (a pair of agents bargaining for a purchase will agree on a different price than 100 identical pairs of agents doing the identical purchase). Speculation bubbles and the type of herd behavior often observed in stock markets are quoted as real life examples of non-equilibrium price trends. Free-market advocates, especially Austrian school followers, often dismiss this endogenous theory, and blame external influences, such as weather, commodity prices, technological developments, and government meddling for non-equilibrium prices. Market equilibria are determined by the aggregate of buyers and sellers and do not normally result in unique pricing.
The effect of economic freedom on society's and individuals' wealth remains a subject of controversy. Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu have shown that under certain idealized conditions, a system of free trade leads to Pareto efficiency, but the traditional Arrow-Debreu paradigm within economics is now being challenged by the new Greenwald-Stiglitz paradigm (1986). Many advocates of free markets, most notably Milton Friedman, have also argued that there is a direct relationship between economic growth and economic freedom, though this assertion is much harder to prove empirically, as the continuous debates among scholars on methodological issues in empirical studies of the connection between economic freedom and economic growth clearly indicate:. "there were a few attempts to study relationship between growth and economic freedom prior to the very recent availability of the Fraser data. These were useful but had to use incomplete and subjective variables". Joshua Epstein and Robert Axtell have attempted to predict the properties of free markets empirically in the agent-based computer simulation "Sugarscape". They came to the conclusion that, again under idealized conditions, free markets lead to a Pareto distribution of wealth .
A free market does not require the existence of competition, however it does require that there are no barriers to new market entrants. Hence, in the lack of coercive barriers 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.
In a truly free market economy, money would not be monopolized by legal tender laws or by a central money maker authority which coerces society to use its own money as the unique medium of exchange in trades, in order to receive taxes from the transactions or to be able to issue loans. Minarchists (advocates of minimal government) contend that the so called "coercion" of taxes is essential for the market's survival, and a market free from taxes may lead to no market at all. By definition, there is no market without private property, and private property can only exist while there is an entity that defines and defends it. Traditionally, the State defends private property and defines it by issuing ownership titles, and also nominates the central authority to print or mint currency. "Free market anarchists" disagree with the above assessment they maintain that private property and free markets can be protected by voluntarily-funded services under the concept of individualist anarchism and anarcho-capitalism. A free market could be defined alternatively as a tax-free market, independent of any central authority, which uses as medium of exchange such as money, even in the absence of the State. It is disputed, however, whether this hypothetical stateless market could function freely, without coercion and violence.
The ethical justification of free markets takes two forms. One appeals to the intrinsic moral superiority of autonomy and freedom (in the market), see deontology. The other is a form of consequentialism—a belief that decentralised planning by a multitude of individuals making free economic decisions produces better results in regard to a more organized, efficient, and productive economy, than does a centrally-planned economy where a central agency decides what is produced, and allocates goods by non-price mechanisms. An older version of this argument is the metaphor of the Invisible Hand, familiar from the work of Adam Smith.
Modern theories of self-organization say the internal organization of a system can increase automatically without being guided or managed by an outside source. When applied to the market, as an ethical justification, these theories appeal to its intrinsic value as a self-organising entity. Other philosophies such as some forms of Individualist anarchism and Mutualism (economic theory) anarchism believe that a truly "free market" would result in prices paid for goods and services to align with the labor embodied in those things.
While the free-market is an idealized abstraction, it is useful in understanding real markets whether artificially created and regulated by governments or non-governmental agencies, or phenomena such as the black market and the underground economy, which can be remarkably robust in persisting despite attempts to suppress these markets; in fact, many proponents of the free market point to sectors such as the drug trade to prove the phenomenon is both spontaneous and can function without government intervention though some would still prefer the contracts be brought under court protection.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, tried to identify the key factors which allow to measure the degree of freedom of economy of a particular country. In 1986 they introduced 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, but this assertion has not been proven yet, both theoretically and empirically. 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...
Some theorists argue that a free market is a natural form of social organization, and that a free market will arise in any society where it is not obstructed (ie Ludwig von Mises, Hayek). The consensus among economic historians is that the free market economy is a specific historic phenomenon, and that it emerged in late medieval and early-modern Europe. Other economic historians see elements of the free market in the economic systems of Classical Antiquity, and in some non-western societies. By the 19th century the market certainly had organized political support, in the form of laissez-faire liberalism. However, it is not clear if the support preceded the emergence of the market or followed it. Some historians see it as the result of the success of early liberal ideology, combined with the specific interests of the entrepreneur.
In Marxist theory, the idea of the free market simply expresses the underlying long-term transition from feudalism to capitalism. Note that the views on this issue - emergence or implementation - do not necessarily correspond to pro-market and anti-market positions. Libertarians would dispute that the market was enforced through government policy, since they believe it is a spontaneous order and Marxists agree with them because they as well believe it is evolutionary, although with a different end.
Support for the free market as an ordering principle of society is above all associated with liberalism, especially during the 19th century. (In Europe, the term 'liberalism' retains its connotation as the ideology of the free market, but in American and Canadian usage it came to be associated with government intervention, and acquired a pejorative meaning for supporters of the free market.) Later ideological developments, such as minarchism, libertarianism and Objectivism also support the free market, and insist on its pure form. Although the Western world shares a generally similar form of economy, usage in the United States and Canada is to refer to this as capitalism, while in Europe 'free market' is the preferred neutral term. Modern liberalism (American and Canadian usage), and in Europe social democracy, seek only to mitigate what they see as the problems of an unrestrained free market, and accept its existence as such.
To most libertarians, there is simply no free market yet, given the degree of state intervention in even the most 'capitalist' of countries. From their perspective, those who say they favor a "free market" are speaking in a relative, rather than an absolute, sense—meaning (in libertarian terms) they wish that coercion be kept to the minimum that is necessary to maximize economic freedom (such necessary coercion would be taxation, for example) and to maximize market efficiency by lowering trade barriers, making the tax system neutral in its influence on important decisions such as how to raise capital, e.g., eliminating the double tax on dividends so that equity financing is not at a disadvantage vis-a-vis debt financing. However, there are some such as anarcho-capitalists who would not even allow for taxation and governments, instead preferring protectors of economic freedom in the form of private contractors.
Critics dispute the claim that in practice free markets create perfect competition, or even increase market competition over the long run. Whether the marketplace should be or is free is disputed; many assert that government intervention is necessary to remedy market failure that is held to be an inevitable result of absolute adherence to free market principles. These failures range from military services to roads, and some would argue, to health care. This is the central argument of those who argue for a mixed market, free at the base, but with government oversight to control social problems.
Critics of laissez-faire variously see the "free market" as an impractical ideal or as a rhetorical device that puts the concepts of freedom and anti-protectionism at the service of vested wealthy interests, allowing them to attack labor laws and other protections of the working classes.
Because no national economy in existence fully manifests the ideal of a free market as theorized by economists, some critics of the concept consider it to be a fantasy - outside of the bounds of reality in a complex system with opposing interests and different distributions of wealth.
These critics range from those who reject markets entirely, in favour of a planned economy or a communal economy, such as that advocated by some types of socialism, to those who merely wish to see markets regulated to various degrees, and these range from those who associate markets with greed which they believe to be inherently immoral to those who raise practical objections.
Some proponents of market economies believe that governments should not diminish market freedom because they disagree on what is a market externality and what are government-created externalities, and disagree over what the appropriate level of intervention is necessary to solve market-created externalities. Others believe that government should intervene to prevent market failure while preserving the general character of a market economy. In the model of a social market economy the state intervenes where the market does not meet political demands. John Rawls was a prominent proponent of this idea.
Not all advocates of capitalism consider free markets to be practical. For example, Martin J. Whitman has written, in a discussion of Keynes, Friedman and Hayek, that these "…great economists…missed a lot of details that are part and parcel of every value investor's daily life." While calling Hayek "100% right" in his critique of the pure command economy, he writes "However, in no way does it follow, as many Hayek disciples seem to believe, that government is per se bad and unproductive while the private sector is, per se good and productive. In well-run industrial economies, there is a marriage between government and the private sector, each benefiting from the other." As illustrations of this, he points at "Japan after World War II, Singapore and the other Asian Tigers, Sweden and China. The notable exception is Hong Kong which found prosperity on an extremely austere free market concept.
He argues, in particular, for the value of government-provided credit and of carefully crafted tax laws. Further, Whitman argues (explicitly against Hayek) that "a free market situation is probably also doomed to failure if there exist control persons who are not subject to external disciplines imposed by various forces over and above competition." The lack of these disciplines, says Whitman, lead to "1. Very exorbitant levels of executive compensation… 2. Poorly financed businesses with strong prospects for money defaults on credit instruments… 3. Speculative bubbles… 4. Tendency for industry competition to evolve into monopolies and oligopolies… 5. Corruption." For all of these he provides recent examples from the U.S. economy, which he considers to be in some respects under-regulated, although in other respects over-regulated (he is generally opposed to Sarbanes-Oxley).
He believes that an apparently "free" relationship—that between a corporation and its investors and creditors—is actually a blend of "voluntary exchanges" and "coercion". For example, there are "voluntary activities, where each individual makes his or her own decision whether to buy, sell, or hold" but there are also what he defines as "[c]oercive activities, where each individual security holder is forced to go along…provided that a requisite majority of other security holders so vote…" His examples of the latter include proxy voting, most merger and acquisition transactions, certain cash tender offers, and reorganization or liquidation in bankruptcy. Whitman also states that "Corporate America would not work at all unless many activities continued to be coercive.
"I am one with Professor Friedman that, other things being equal, it is far preferable to conduct economic activities through voluntary exchange relying on free markets rather than through coercion. But Corporate America would not work at all unless many activities continued to be coercive.
Another name for capitalism;