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Robert Reich on the myth of the free market

Robert Reich on the myth of the free market

Some of you questioned the last line of my post yesterday, that "a decent society should do no less" when I argued for a $9 minimum wage. You asked who's to determine decency? Why shouldn't we let the "market" decide? This is one of the oldest conservative canards in existence, based on the false idea that there's something called a "market" that exists separate from society. But there's no "market" in a state of nature, just survival of the fittest. A society necessarily determines how the "market" is to be organized. Standards of morality and decency play a large part in those decisions. We set minimum standards for worker safety and consumer protection. We decide young children shouldn't be in the labor force. We do our best to prevent certain things from being bought and sold, such as slaves, dangerous narcotics, babies, votes, sex with children, machine guns, nuclear material. We decide citizens shouldn't have to buy certain things that should instead be available to everyone free of charge (paid in effect by all of us through our taxes) - things like clean drinking water, K-12 schools, safe bridges, protection from violence, public parks.

Our opinions may differ about what decency requires, and we hash it out in a democracy. We might decide certain minimum standards are too costly or inefficient, or can't be enforced, or impose unwarranted constraints on our freedoms. Different societies come up with different answers. Handguns are banned in most advanced nations, for example. Workers have more protections than they do in the United States. Minimum wages are higher. Taxes on the wealthy are higher. Every society must necessarily decide for itself what decency requires. That's the very meaning of a "society." Don't ever fall for the mindless assertion that "markets" know best. Markets are human creations, requiring human beings to decide how they are structured and maintained.

Robert Reich
February, 2013

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