Commerce, Our Benefactor

What if we had the following economic system?

This system would shower the globe with free goods day and night, asking nothing and giving nearly everything. Most of what it generated would be free goods, and every living person would have access.

Anyone who amassed a private profit would do so only because he or she served others, and the system would require this person to cough up communally owned information: Everyone on the planet would know the reason for anyone’s success.

It would serve all races and classes this way. It would serve the common man slavishly and knock the elites when they become proud and arrogant. It would make it beneficial to everyone to include ever more people in its productive potential and give everyone who wants it a stake in the outcome.

That system has a name. It’s called the free market. This is more obvious in the digital age, but the proliferation of free goods has always been a major feature of capitalism. It’s just that people haven’t really talked about it, though Robert Murphy’s outstanding Lessons for the Young Economist does an excellent job.

In fact, the free market is the most misunderstood idea out there, by its detractors and, just as often, by its proponents as well. As for the characterization of the market as a utopia for profiteers, moguls and scamsters, one doubts that people who think this way have ever really tried to make a buck in a competitive system. It’s hard as heck. The whole process is seriously tilted against private gain at public expense.

Now, I could go on with a theoretical argument here, but sometimes personal examples get the point across better. To be sure, we do not live in a free market now; instead, the world’s largest and most intrusive apparatus of intervention interferes with ours. But there is enough of a market remaining in this world to clue us in to how it works, and sometimes the simplest retail example suffices.

So let me tell you about the barbershop I stumbled into yesterday. The people there cut hair. But they also have pingpong tables, darts, pool and free beer that you can drink at a bar.

I walked in with a friend and stood marveling at the pingpong table and asked: “Can we play?” They said, “Oh, sure.” So we played and played.

Finally, after a while, I asked, “Pardon me, but can I have a haircut?” They were pleased but surprised since they thought I was just another person who wanted to only play pingpong! They were perfectly happy to let me play for free.

The haircut happened; I hung around for a beer, continued to be dazzled by this extraordinary entrepreneurial venture and finally asked if they had a Facebook page. “Of course,” came the answer. I took a picture, posted it on my page, liked their page and, within minutes, people all over the world were talking about this little place. “Salon de barbier avec tables de pool et pingpong, dards et bière gratuite,” said one share in France that swirled around that network.

Now, consider this: Did I do the place a favor? The owners probably think so. It is a new business just starting out. It needs advertising and promotion. On the other hand, look what I did: I immediately alerted every other potential competitor to a great idea to get customers in the door. Now every barbershop in town can “steal” the idea. They can buy a pingpong table, grab a case of beer, put up a dartboard and off they go.

The barbershop would absolutely love to find a way to reach possible customers without also giving away its tricks to its competitors. But you know what? This is not possible. One comes with the other. Information is a free good; once it is released, it can be consumed and used by anyone who runs across it.

What then happens to the competitive advantage enjoyed by the new and struggling place? It is seriously threatened. It faces wicked competition, even from big chains that can implement these suggestions in a few days at very little cost. The thing that made the new place cool and great is now copied by everyone else. If this happens, the new place will face new pressure on its bottom line. It will be forced to innovate again.

To be sure, every other barbershop in town is unclear whether this pool-and-darts thing really is the magic bullet to achieve success. So rather than emulate that strategy right away, others might wait to see how it works for the first adopter. It might flop. Or it might be amazing. If it is amazing, others will adopt the practices, but there’s a problem: The first mover has the advantage. It already has a loyal clientele and a fan base.

Billions of bits of information (free goods!) hit business owners every day that allow them to copy the successes (and failures) of others. Knowing which to implement and which not to is an essential part of the job. It might even be the hardest part of the job.

But here’s the point I’m making: It is not possible to succeed in this market without giving away the “secret recipe” to success. Fortunately, there is no patent or copyright on things like putting a pool table in a barbershop, so the government can’t stop learning from taking place. And this is the way it would be in a pure free market in every industry. To succeed means first to give — giving goods and services to customers (this is the key to profitability) and then giving away the method by which you succeed (or the reason for your failure) to everyone in the world who cares. The very act of doing commercial enterprise — which always tends toward being an open-source undertaking — make your methods an object of study.

The information you give away is the price you pay for the prospect of profits. But those profits are always being threatened by competitors who emulate your successes. This means that you can never rest, you can never be satisfied with the status quo. You must innovate and revamp on an ongoing basis — and you have to do this with an eye to bringing the public what it wants in the most-efficient possible way. This is what gives the market such dynamism, such forward motion, such an innovative spirit.

Chances are that you are reading this article in a venue that is perfectly free to you. Maybe you saw it on a website you did not pay for or saw it linked on a social network that you do not pay to use. These are free goods, the means that capitalists use to entice your interest in what they are doing.

But these free goods are only the start of what the market offers. The most-valuable free good that that market is cranking out by the minute is the ocean of information about success and failure, about what people want and don’t want, about what works and what doesn’t work. This vast reserve of information is being poured out globally and constantly, and it is like a relentless shower of blessings on civilization. Digital networks have increased the blessing by degrees no one ever imagined possible.

The example of the barbershop might not seem like much, but if you understand it — really understand it, and the underlying dynamic it reveals — you understand the thing that has lifted the entire world out of the state of nature into the glorious prosperity that is currently spreading all over the world. This is the market at work — that network of exchange, cooperation, service, innovation, emulation and competition that makes the world tick, all in the service of human well-being. The more market we have, the more progress we will see.

So let’s ask the question: Why is it that so many people think they are against the free market? It must be because they don’t really understand it. I would first suggest Robert Murphy’s book. Then I would invite them to join me for a beer and a game of pingpong and ask what they think made this little slice of heaven possible?

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