The ethics of the free market:
why market liberalism is wrong

The moral, political and social objections to market liberalism and the market itself. The market is not a neutral 'process', it is a structure deliberately imposed, to implement the goals of a liberal ideology. It can be ethically assessed, and rejected, on that basis: criticism of the market overlaps with general critique of liberalism.

The goals of market liberalism

Market liberals see the free market as an instrument to achieve certain goals. Very few attempt to justify the market on quasi-esthetic lines, as something of intrinsic value but without direct application. When liberals speak of the free market, they mean a functioning market with real participants.

___Balance and stability

Metaphors of balance and equilibrium are often used by liberal philosophers, to justify liberal political systems. The market is sometimes justified in these terms. In the early days of capitalism, the market was praised as a moderating influence on a turbulent society. The early-capitalist ideology is described by Albert Hirschman in The passions and the interests: political arguments for capitalism before its triumph (1977). The expression 'la douce commerce' dates from that time: commerce was contrasted with war. The underlying value system is rarely explicit, but logically it implies that balance and equilibrium are inherently good - otherwise, why arrange society to maximise them?

___Hidden order

Another philosophical justification for liberal structures is that they reveal, or bring into existence, a more perfect order. This line of argument derives from mediaeval theology (although it might be much older). The idea is that God's plan is revealed, by the combined result of human actions. In market liberalism, explicit claims that the market produces the best 'ordering of society' are common. Liberal societies, and the market, are also justified by their ordering of individual preferences. Neoliberals appeal to the superiority of 'emergent' or 'self-organising' orders, as opposed to 'patterned' or 'designed' orders. Again these are value preferences in themselves - 'emergent' is not a synonym for 'good' and an emergent order does not inherently justify itself.

___Prosperity and welfare of the community

Despite their claimed individualism, market liberals often appeal to the general success of market societies, to justify the market's existence. The fact that some individuals do not benefit, or are dissatisfied, is ignored. The usual comparison is with the planned economy of the Soviet Union, which is considered a total failure. Compared to historical examples of planned economies, market economies have higher average incomes - but unequally distributed. Again, it is a value preference in itself, to choose the 'common good' over any other moral defects of the market - especially with such a crude measure of the 'common good'.

The imposition of the market

Competition is a characteristic of the free market, but its supporters do not tolerate any competitor for the free market itself. Almost always, they support a comprehensive global free market, a planetary monopoly. The market has definite goals, as explained above - it is not neutral and there are alternatives. A global free market implies their suppression. A voluntary global free market does not exist, at least not on this planet. The market was imposed, and maintains itself, by deliberate action.

Expansionism is one of the clearest characteristics of market liberalism. Especially in the post-Soviet 'transition economies' there are identifiable national lobbies and groups which have no other purpose, than to impose the free market on that country. There are also individuals and organisations demanding a global free market, although usually within the context of global liberalism. At present, market liberalism is probably the most aggressive global ideology - more so than for instance Islamism. Very few Islamists have serious plans for the Islamisation of the United States, but in contrast many Americans demand (and expect) a transformation of Islamic societies into liberal market democracies.

___Internal filters

The internal ideological strength of the market is less visible than its expansionism, but no less real. The market, to use a biological analogy, has an immune response. The structures of a market society obstruct criticism and opposition to the market, it neutralises attacks from within. The filter working of the job market is the best example: it is much harder for opponents of the market to get a job, than for its supporters. This filter effect is in action every time a vacancy is filled, and is often institutionalised in the form of permanent assessment. Employees at an investment bank - who can lose their job if their tie is the wrong colour - are unlikely to suddenly join anti-capitalist demonstrations. Over time, the probable effect is a lessening of all criticism, and a general acceptance of the market as inevitable and 'normal'. The social conformity, which was seen by dissidents as a typical characteristic of 'Soviet-bloc' societies, is just as evident in market societies.

___Military imposition of liberalism

It should not be forgotten that the free market is also imposed by military conquest - not in isolation, but as part of an imposed liberal-democratic political regime. The present liberal market democracies in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, are the direct result of invasion by US and allied forces in 1944 and 1945. In recent years, interim administrations with liberal-democratic orientation have been imposed by military force, on Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and parts of Macedonia. A free market economy existed already in these areas. Nevertheless, the market is part of the 'packet' of values and social structures, imposed by the troops. In addition, the NATO as a military alliance appears to include the free market among its core values. All its actions are, at least partly, directed at the imposition of these values. It is certainly unthinkable, that a US or NATO force would supervise the introduction of a Soviet-type economy.

The entrepreneur

The free market, certainly the modern version, cannot exist without the entrepreneur. A liberal market society stands in opposition to an ethical society, and the entrepreneur stands in opposition to the ethical individual or organisation.
___Definition of an entrepreneur

A familiar example of a pre-capitalist ethical organisation is the mediaeval monastery, where the monks worked for the glory of God. At least in theory - in reality the monasteries were often proto-firms, active in the commercialised sectors of the mediaeval economy. Nevertheless, it is clear that an ethical organisation can exist, and that individuals can act ethically (in accordance with some ethical goal). In contrast, the entrepreneur acts in accordance with market forces. This is so central to the activities of the entrepreneur, that it can be used as a definition. An entrepreneur is a person who, as a profession, acts in accordance with market forces. In modern economies, 'the entrepreneur' is usually an organisation rather than an individual. There are still many individual entrepreneurs, but their share of the Gross National Product is small, compared to that of firms. An 'entrepreneurial organisation' or enterprise, normally meaning a business firm, exists for the purpose of acting in conformity with market forces.

___Characteristics of an 'enterprise'

In practice, all enterprises have certain characteristics which clearly distinguish them from an ethical organisation, even when both operate in a market society:

  1. the enterprise competes for market share with other similar organisations
  2. it is prepared to damage the interests of its competitors, for instance by reducing their market share
  3. it sells products at more than cost price
  4. it seeks to ensure its own continued existence, even when that contradicts ethical goals, and it makes no provision for its own dissolution on moral grounds
  5. it excludes from decision-making persons of good will, who might seek its dissolution on moral grounds
  6. it does not distinguish on moral criteria, among its customers, or suppliers, or clients, or in the selection of its personnel
  7. it internalises the principle of competition, by for instance competitive selection among job applicants - so creating a new market within the market, the 'labour market'.

The enterprise culture and the firm

The entrepreneur seeks primarily to act in accordance with market forces within a free market economy: nevertheless certain sub-goals logically follow from that. In addition, an enterprise culture has emerged, which can not always be logically derived from the original ideology of market liberalism.
___Entrepreneurs are liberals

There must be a market, or the existence of the enterprise makes no sense: therefore the enterprise is pro-market. This may seem a trivial point, but it is important to realise that every enterprise is at the same time a political organisation. Every entrepreneur is a market liberal, in the general sense. In mid-19th century Europe, this was a political reality: the 'industrialists' supported the dominant liberal parties. The rise of the mass parties - nationalist, Christian, socialist - eroded the political role of those liberal parties, but their model of economy and society remains triumphant.

___Businesses are pro-business

Again it may seem trivial, but by definition an enterprise must support its own existence, and therefore the existence of enterprises as a class of organisations. Entrepreneurs act collectively as a lobby, to demand facilities for entrepreneurs. As mere private individuals, in a non-market society, they could not achieve much. Their demands are addressed to the state. That may seem inconsistent - but only the state can structure itself as a facility for entrepreneurs, it would be pointless to demand that from the clergy, or from the art world.

___'Business' as such exists

The 'business community', as it is called in the United States, does exist as a community, and it is a pro-business community. It exists as a social factor, beyond the economic activities of its individual members. It influences society, by the way it spends its money. Business, for instance, will not sponsor left-wing parties: business supports the right in politics, including the nationalist and racist right. The personal preferences of the businessman and businesswoman are generally conformist and conservative, as is visible at any business conference. In contrast to their own mythology, they are unadventurous. There is even a collective style in clothing - the business suit is one of the few voluntary uniforms in modern societies. The business world has its own language and social style, it is a complete subculture. The question is: why should this particular minority have total control of the economy?

___Glorification of the entrepreneur

In a typical market society, the entrepreneur is assigned a heroic role, and is glorified as the source of wealth and innovation. Non-entrepreneurial activity, for instance idealistic activity, is seen as secondary or even parasitical. This vision is not only promoted by entrepreneurs themselves: ideological praise of the entrepreneur is as old as market liberalism itself. Modern neoliberals, such as Tony Blair, are especially active in glorifying the entrepreneur, and explicitly demanding an 'enterprise culture'. The heroic entrepreneur is also a central theme of libertarian propaganda.

___Market demand and the customer

Market societies tend to view the market as norm, a view which is itself propagated by market liberals. In a market society, market forces are treated as if they were an ethical goal in themselves: indices such as the Dow Jones or the FTSE are idolised. The staff of the business firm are told that "the customer is always right" or more recently, that the shareholder is always right. Assuming, of course, that neither threatens the firm itself. Again this is a deliberate substitution of the aggregate customer and shareholder, for ethical judgment and moral principles.

The effects of the market

The free market has effects on the course of history, and on society. The Dutch word 'marktconform' is useful in describing these effects - it means 'in conformity with the market' or 'determined by market forces'. A 'marktconform' housing policy, for instance, means that houses are built by entrepreneurs, where and when they want, in whatever size or form they think they can sell, and without regard to planning or environmental considerations. The result - generally suburban sprawl - is also 'marktconform'. The market is not neutral, and can not neutrally order preferences: its own preference is for a 'marktconform' world.
___The market limits positive and negative possibilities

Despite the propaganda, the free market limits choice - it produces only goods and services which are marketable. Try to find a supermarket stocked entirely with un-marketable goods, or an enterprise which produces them for years on end. The logic of the market is, by definition, that the unmarketable is competed out of existence. So the market prevents the existence of the unmarketable: a limit on possibility. The propaganda of market liberals presents the market as innovative, or at least as a facilitator of innovation. Nevertheless, a free market will inherently suppress any innovation which is unmarketable. A market society is by definition permanently in a 'marktconform' state, and contra-market innovation can not exist there. Once a market society has become a perfect outcome of market forces, then it will remain stable, unless an external shock disrupts its 'marktconform' stability. In a negative sense that is also true - it is impossible in a free market to abolish anything which is 'marktconform'. If I want to forbid Disney products, for instance, I can not trust the market to achieve this goal: so long as they are so successful and marketable, they will be available. Only the state can effectively prohibit marketable goods: that is why drug and alcohol prohibitionists use the state, not the market, to enforce their values.

___Adaptive, non-innovative, conformity

A market society creates and encourages a mentality of adaptation to the existing world. This is most evident in the labour market, in the behaviour of job-seekers, especially students. Many students choose their courses, not for personal or idealistic reasons, but simply for 'good career prospects'. The career-seeker does what the employer requires, and refrains from what the employer dislikes. The resulting attitude is a strangely aggressive form of conformity. The 'aggressive adapter', the successful career-maker, equates personal success with meeting the demands of the employer. In a shrinking labour market, this can sometimes translate into a radical conservatism, in which business culture is idolised. An excessive admiration for small product changes, to the exclusion of larger radical innovation, is often part of this radical conservatism. Approximately this line of thought: The free market brought us striped toothpaste, this is the greatest innovation in human history, we must all dress conservatively and try to become an entrepreneur, that is the true global revolution!

___Harm by competition

Harm is an integral part of any free market, and this harm is not limited to the entrepreneurs. Market liberals say that the entrepreneur should seek to advance his own interests. In a free market, that must consist of damaging the position of others. Each entrepreneur competes with other entrepreneurs for a limited resource - market share. Whatever happens to the Gross National Product, the combined market shares are always equal to 100%. To increase share (advance his own interests), an entrepreneur must, by definition, reduce the market shares of others. In any case, by the market-liberal definition of success, a successful business competes its rivals out of existence. At first, the rival firms suffer financial loss. Ultimately, they can not meet their financial obligations: they collapse, usually via a bankruptcy procedure. Their employees lose their jobs. This is how a free market works - its supporters understand that job security undermines it. The threat of job loss through competition is always present, even if only in the background: constant pressure on labour is a characteristic of a free market. If the market functions as it is intended, then employees will work harder, for less pay, in order to secure their jobs. They too, are forced to be competitors of each other, in order to get a job and keep it.

___Harm to others as a social value

It seems dangerous to ground a society on the value of trying to disadvantage others. That is exactly what market liberalism proposes, and the results are predictable. Since the entrepreneur has no other interest other than his own, he will not seek to protect others. When he benefits, he will seek to actively harm others - if he thinks he can get away with that. An endless series of scandals show that entrepreneurs are indeed prepared to injure and kill others for their gain. The sale of contaminated food is probably the most typical example of entrepreneurial behaviour. Governments find it necessary to restrain entrepreneurs in the food industry, by regulation, to prevent them from poisoning the population. That in itself ought to say enough about the entrepreneurial mentality. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs continue to evade these regulations. Recent epidemics of animal diseases in Europe illustrate that. Although everyone in the sector is familiar with the risks, there are always some who use contaminated feed, or transport animals illegally, and so spread the disease. The entrepreneur seems incapable of self-regulation - and that is not surprising, since liberal market culture abhors regulation.

___Selection by competition

The free market generates a form of Darwinian selection: the survival of the competitive. Non-competition, or incomplete competition, is failure. The market produces a hierarchy of failure, with the most competitive firms and individuals at the top. Not necessarily those with the best products, or the most honest advertising, or the best treatment of their employees - but those who can best compete in a free market. The least competitive are at the bottom of the hierarchy, or simply dead - in many parts of the world, no job means no food. The market is not the only social structure which generates inequality in this way: modern educational systems, for instance, are structured as a competition of intellectual talents. They also produce hierarchy, inequality and failure, although they are not a market. They are part of a general category of liberal structures, where the aggregate outcome of competition determines the final structure. The formal equality of such liberal structures (everyone can participate) does not reflect the real inequality of the 'talents' required. Not everyone can compete like Bill Gates - and not everyone should.

___The triangular form of selection

In market-liberal propaganda, the market is represented as a fair two-party transaction, typically buyer and seller in free contract. In reality the free market can never function with two parties - it has a 'triangular' character. At least three parties are required - one buyer and two competing sellers, for instance. Only in such a triangle can competition and market forces exist: the two sellers compete, and market forces drive their prices down. As a result, one party can be disadvantaged, even by a free and fair contract between the other two. The buyer may like the price, and the seller may like the price, but the third party (who failed to sell) might starve. In the real free market there are billions of parties, and repeated transactions: the effect of disadvantage is cumulative.


The free market extends the power of selection to many, although their individual effect on the outcome is small. That is not necessarily a good thing: the evidence is that the market selects against innovation. Conformity, conservatism, and middle-of-the-road taste are typical of consumer behaviour, in the western market democracies. The selective effects of the market are themselves cumulative. Whatever is marginalised by the operation of market forces, becomes less attractive and more marginal - as a result of that status. What already sells well, becomes more marketable. This is a general characteristic of all liberal social structures, not just the market. Repeated transactions and interactions, on the basis of the outcome of previous transactions and interactions, have a centering effect. Deviations from the norm are 'punished' by such regimes, and innovation is by definition a deviation from the existing norm. In western societies, it is easier to sell a Disney DVD than innovative music, it is easier for a person with Disney-DVD tastes to get a job, it is easier to start a business selling Disney DVD's than to overthrow the WTO. The market society brings the 'general consensus' to bear on the individual - more effectively than any other society in history. As a result, it strengthens that consensus, and tends to produces a stable conformist society, with little deviation from the core culture.

The morality of the effects

The free market is grounded in a value system: its morality can be questioned simply by stating alternative values.

The free market has no end, its duration is indefinite: in principle it is forever. So far as I know, no theorist of the market has ever fixed a time limit, or named a structure which will replace it. The duration of the market is a universality in time: the market is also intended to be universal in space. When market liberals advocate the market, they advocate a permanent global market - an implicit claim that it represents the highest possible form of society. However, the market should not have a planetary monopoly, nor should it last for ever, nor should it intensify itself, by centering society on a core culture which is itself a market culture.


Like other liberal structures, the market promotes interaction and transaction: it is grounded on the premise that these things are inherently good. They are not, and neither goods nor ideas exist solely to be exchanged. Market liberals implicitly claim, that all humans should be linked by transactions, to the greatest possible extent. There is no basis for such a claim: transaction-maximisation is not inherently right. A collective decision-making process, with a great number of transactions, destroys the moral autonomy of the subject. In such a process, there is no causal relationship between the decision of an individual, and the aggregate outcome of global market forces. Ethical action is impossible in such a society.


The market blocks the innovative transition to a non-market world. It structures the world in a particular way, as the outcome of market forces, and it keeps it that way. Stability, balance, and harmony are not inherently good, and it is wrong to order the world in accordance with these values. Order is not inherently good, and the creation of order can form no justification for the market. The ordering of preferences is not inherently good, and it is wrong to order human society merely as a preference order. Whenever the market inhibits or obstructs innovation, then innovation should take precedence over the market. Innovation as a value overrides order, stability, balance, harmony, and any non-innovative preference order.

Index: liberalism