When thinking about the difference between government action and action taken by free people trading freely in markets, many myths abound. Tom G. Palmer has written an important paper that confronts these myths about markets. The third myth — Reliance on Markets Leads to Monopoly — and Palmer’s refutation is below. The complete series of myths and responses is at Twenty Myths about Markets.
Palmer is editor of the recent book The Morality of Capitalism. He will be in Overland Park and Wichita in May speaking on the moral case for capitalism. For more information and to register for these events see The Morality of Capitalism.
Myth: Reliance on markets leads to monopoly
Myth: Without government intervention, reliance on free markets would lead to a few big firms selling everything. Markets naturally create monopolies, as marginal producers are squeezed out by firms that seek nothing but their own profits, whereas governments are motivated to seek the public interest and will act to restrain monopolies.
Tom G. Palmer: Governments can — and all too often do — give monopolies to favored individuals or groups; that is, they prohibit others from entering the market and competing for the custom of customers. That’s what a monopoly means. The monopoly may be granted to a government agency itself (as in the monopolized postal services in many countries) or it may be granted to a favored firm, family, or person.
Do free markets promote monopolization? There’s little or no good reason to think so and many reasons to think not. Free markets rest on the freedom of persons to enter the market, to exit the market, and to buy from or sell to whomever they please. If firms in markets with freedom of entry make above average profits, those profits attract rivals to compete those profits away. Some of the literature of economics offers descriptions of hypothetical situations in which certain market conditions could lead to persistent “rents,” that is, income in excess of opportunity cost, defined as what the resources could earn in other uses. But concrete examples are extremely hard to find, other than relatively uninteresting cases such as ownership of unique resources (for example, a painting by Rembrandt). In contrast, the historical record is simply full of examples of governments granting special privileges to their supporters.
Freedom to enter the market and freedom to choose from whom to buy promote consumer interests by eroding those temporary rents that the first to offer a good or service may enjoy. In contrast, endowing governments with power to determine who may or may not provide goods and services creates the monopolies — the actual, historically observed monopolies — that are harmful to consumers and that restrain the productive forces of mankind on which human betterment rests. If markets routinely led to monopolies, we would not expect to see so many people going to government to grant them monopolies at the expense of their less powerful competitors and customers. They could get their monopolies through the market, instead.
It’s always worth remembering that government itself seeks to exercise a monopoly; it’s a classic defining characteristic of a government that it exercises a monopoly on the exercise of force in a given geographic area. Why should we expect such a monopoly to be more friendly to competition than the market itself, which is defined by the freedom to compete?