Democracy as the Heart of Debates about Regulation

There is a tendency among free marketers to say: “if markets are bringing it about, it is necessary.” And the big insight on the left for at least the past fifty years has been to say: “ah, but the market is shaped by the law, so if we pass a law preventing it from happening, then markets won’t bring it about after all.”

So, in the context of the influx of American digital nomads to Mexico City, and the opposition to gentrification they have aroused, the free marketer says: “locals are getting rich selling to the Americans, and the Americans clearly believe they are getting something of value, so this is natural; it’s going to happen; if you try to stop it you might as well try to use your pinky to dam the Nile.” And the left winger replies: “the only reason the Americans can move here is that Mexico permits them to stay for six months without a visa. Change the rule, and this goes away. Mexico has a choice.”

The free marketer seems to espouse market naturalism: society is self-organizing and policymakers have little choice regarding outcomes. The most they can do is create a temporary disequilibrium—a dam that will break. By his reply, the left winger restores the policymaker’s freedom to decide social outcomes.

Both the free marketer and the left winger miss the point.

The proper argument for free markets is not that market outcomes are natural. The left winger has the better of the debate on that score: the state does in fact come first, then the market. That is why free marketers fear Communism. Because the state really can shut down the market—and, by extension, use a lighter touch to shape the social outcomes to which the market leads.

A proper free market argument accepts that policymakers can channel or override market outcomes but the argument holds that policymakers shouldn’t do that, because the people speak clearest through markets. That is, the only really coherent argument for free markets is that markets are more democratic than the electoral process. When people buy and sell, they vote, and the free market position is that un- or lightly-regulated markets process those votes in a way that is more faithful to the preferences of the voters than are the institutions of representative democracy that process the votes that people cast in electing the policymakers who would otherwise regulate market outcomes.

So, the argument would go, while activists might not like the fact that Americans are moving to Mexico City, the fact that Mexicans themselves are willing to rent them places to live and sell them tacos is the clearest possible indicator that Mexicans want the Americans to come.

The left winger’s response that the state comes first is not a good rejoinder to this proper form of the free market argument. For the free marketer can argue that the state ought to embrace the system that most faithfully reflects the will of the people, and that markets, in his view, are that system. The only way for the left winger to strike back is to argue that the electoral process, through which people can choose to alter market outcomes, does an even better job of reflecting the will of the people.

That might be true—and I tend to think that it is. But unlike the question whether the law is prior to the market and can influence market outcomes, the answer is easier to contest, as several generations of public choice theorists have done.

In the market, one’s ability to speak is mediated by wealth—more money and more ownership means more votes. But even were it possible to keep money out of politics—and if not, then elections are mediated by money, too—elections would still be prone to distortion by small, highly-organized interest groups. Many voters don’t show up to the polls, and their representatives don’t always do what they want even when they do.

Indeed, it is difficult even to compare outcomes under these approaches because they represent, in effect, different social welfare functions. Are the sale decisions of landlords and street food vendors a more accurate expression of the abstraction that is the “will of the people” than the decisions of representatives elected by the subset of the population that showed up to vote in the last election?

The debate over regulation of markets is really a debate over norms—and specifically democratic legitimacy—not market naturalism.

It won’t be resolved until both sides start acting that way.