Why Do We Need Human Rights? (32): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas

First, a brief reminder of how I understand the marketplace of ideas and how it justifies freedom of speech. I normally don’t do this, but I can save us all a lot of time by quoting myself:

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

If this metaphor of the market is convincing then it can provide a powerful reason for adopting and protecting the right to free speech. There’s hardly a more valuable good than quality in thinking and if free speech can help to deliver that good it’s difficult to argue against this right.

Personally, I do think that the metaphor of the free market can help us to understand the logic and benefits of free and widespread public discussion and of the free exchange of and competition between ideas, and that this understanding can provide a good justification for freedom of speech. Much of what goes on in the marketplace of ideas is similar to what goes on in a market of goods or services. The important similarity is the free exchange of and competition between ideas, the lack of restrictions on exchange and competition, and the freedom of all to join in the exchange and competition on a equal footing. And although I would advise not to push the metaphor too far (a perpetual and fatal temptation of all economic metaphors), there’s probably one more similarity that can be useful, namely the concept of market failure.

Market failure in economics refers to those cases in which a free market, left to itself, fails to allocate goods and services efficiently. In other words, there is at least one market participant who may have been better off without anyone else being worse off had other systems operated instead of the free market. Examples of market failure are

  • information asymmetries, which occur when one party in a transaction has more or better information than the other (classic examples are the used-car salesman selling a defective car to someone who has no knowledge of cars, and the terminally ill person buying a life insurance)
  • externalities, which occur when a transaction has a cost that is not transmitted through prices and that is incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost (the classic example is industrial pollution imposing costs on the whole society, costs that are not included in the transaction price of the polluting goods).

Market failures can also occur in the marketplace of ideas. It’s important to check whether these market failures are enough of a problem to render the concept of a marketplace of ideas unworkable. If the marketplace of ideas can’t work properly most of the time, then it can’t function as a justification of freedom of speech. However, if market failures are due to insufficient free speech, then free speech can still be justified by the concept of the marketplace of ideas. The problem is that market failures in the marketplace of ideas often go beyond insufficient free speech. Let’s list some of those market failures:

  • Political correctness: political correctness is a form of silencing and therefore introduces market failure; if some arguments or some positions can’t be expressed and heard, then they can’t enter into the calculus of arguments and can’t improve our thinking. This is true even if those arguments or positions are manifestly unsound, because silencing them means that we lose a way of stressing the soundness of other arguments and positions (saying what’s wrong about something is often an indirect way of saying what’s right about something else).
  • Silencing more generally: political correctness isn’t the only form of silencing; pornography may silence women and hate speech may silence minorities; silencing means the absence of arguments and positions, and such an absence always harms the operation of the marketplace of ideas.
  • Polarization: polarization occurs when groups in society do not argue, convince or engage in public thinking but instead simply express claims motivated, not by the willingness to persuade, but by the need to show their identity or belonging; no one is convinced, people stay in their respective camps and these camps drift further apart because absent an exchange of reasons for beliefs, people start to see other groups as increasingly strange, alien and incomprehensible.
  • Biased media attention: a lot of the argumentation in the marketplace isn’t direct but gets channeled through media; if these media don’t take the ideal of the marketplace seriously and don’t function as stages for debate but instead play the game of polarization and present ongoing debates in a biased way, then there’s less debate.
  • Lack of education: the argumentation in the marketplace of ideas obviously requires a relatively high level of education; absent this education for the large majority, the marketplace can’t function since it depends on massive participation.
  • Psychological biases: even if general education levels are high, certain psychological biases can hinder the operation of the market; one example is confirmation bias, the tendency of people to seek out evidence that is favorable to their original beliefs, and neglect evidence that is unfavorable; it’s obvious that this harms the operation of the marketplace.
  • Privacy issues: some people may be discouraged from entering the marketplace of ideas because they can’t handle exposure or the possible intrusions into their private lives that may follow from participation in the marketplace.
  • Etc.

Now, many of these market failures do look pretty serious and may discredit the whole notion of a marketplace of ideas, at least in the foreseeable future. However, most can be addressed in some ways. Media can be forced to present different viewpoints, hate speech can be curtailed etc. So there may be ways of rescuing the ideal of the marketplace of ideas both as an ideal in itself and as a justification of free speech. Much like the economic market in goods and services isn’t necessarily discredited by economic market failure and can be rescued by targeted government intervention.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (37): Lack of Trade Liberalization

I’ve argued before that doing away with trade restrictions (especially in the agricultural sector) – such as subsidies (like the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy), import duties and other protectionist measures – would be a boost to the global struggle against poverty. Free and unsubsidized trade reduces poverty in at least three ways:

  • It brings down prices because of increased specialization, competition and comparative advantage. Although the removal of subsidies (only one element of trade liberalization) would initially raise prices and hence also poverty levels in importing countries, over time this would be compensated by the downward pressure created by specialization, increased competition and comparative advantage. However, these importing countries wouldn’t be the poorest ones: “three-quarters of the world’s poor live in rural areas, with the majority of them depending directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihoods” (source). The poorest countries would benefit from initial price rises caused by the removal of subsidies. (That doesn’t mean that everyone in the poorest countries would benefit: non-farm workers may suffer).
  • It opens up foreign markets for poor producers.
  • It eliminates distortions of competition between local producers and foreign, subsidized products, distortions which often force local producers out of business.

All this has a positive effect on the income of the poor. There’s a new paper here arguing that the net effect of trade liberalization is a reduction of the number of poor people worldwide by 3%:

the winners from trade reform would include poorer countries and the poorest individuals within countries. Nevertheless, it is also clear that even among the extreme poor, some would lose.

Of course, and again: beware of the silver-bullet fallacy. Domestic anti-poverty policies continue to be important as well.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (5): Globalization

Globalization is supposed to have lowered the earnings of less-educated workers by putting them in direct competition with low-wage workers around the world. This competition put pressure on wages through international trade in goods and services; through the relocation or threat of relocation of production facilities to overseas locations; through competition with immigrants in local labor markets; and through other channels. …

U.S. and European workers are told that … our societies can no longer afford a generous welfare state. …

Contrary to the standard framing, which presents globalization as something that no nation can escape or even attempt to shape, we can choose the terms under which we integrate capital, product, and labor markets across countries. Over the last 30 years we have indeed “chosen” a particular form of globalization in the United States – a form that benefits corporations and their owners at the expense of workers and their communities. If we had chosen globalization on different terms, however, economic integration would not have required rising inequality. Another globalization is possible. (source, source)

So globalization, as it has occurred and is occurring, causes higher inequality in the West in two ways:

  • The direct competition with overseas workers who can produce at lower wages puts downward pressure on wages in the West, especially for low-skilled workers at the wrong end of inequality.
  • Governments in developed countries react to this competition by restricting social safety nets because the taxes necessary for the funding of these safety nets hurts the competitiveness of local businesses, a competitiveness already under pressure from low-cost labor in the developing world. Less generous safety nets obviously also have a negative effect on inequality.

If these effects are real, perhaps they can explain the decline of manufacturing in many developed countries.

However, I’m not sure this pressure on wages is real and significant (I’ll try to find some data), and we also shouldn’t dismiss the benefits for low-wage workers in the West of cheaper products. This particular result of globalization can offset the possible negative wage effects of wage competition.

Also, I’m not sure governments in the West are actively attacking safety nets (here it says they haven’t during the last decades, but it seems that the recent economic crisis has convinced some to start cutting benefits). And finally, we should remember that inequality isn’t just a national problem. The inequality between countries is just as, if not more, important. And globalization has had a beneficial effect on inter-country inequality because it has redistributed wealth from rich countries to poor countries. For example, it’s hard to imagine how China could have had the same success in poverty reduction without globalization. The question is of course whether this redistribution had to come from low skilled workers in the West, rather than from their more wealthy fellow citizens. The fact that it did come, however, was undoubtedly beneficial to the poor in the receiving development countries.

Racism (4): Competition v Racial Bias

Gary Becker looked at the well-documented fact that African-Americans in the U.S. earn less than whites, partly because on average they are less well educated. But even if corrected for this, there remains an unexplainable difference in wages. Unexplainable apart from racial bias. There have been many studies that have proven the existence of bias. For example, firms are 1.5 times as likely to interview someone for a job if they think the person is white, even if all other characteristics such as education and experience are equal.

The interesting thing about Becker is that he goes beyond education, positive discrimination or labor legislation in his search for solutions. He mentions increased competition between firms. A racially biased firm will only hire a white who is more expensive and perhaps even less qualified than a black, if this firm is not under pressure from competitors. If its market is opened to competition, then other firms can and will produce the same goods at cheaper prices by hiring the black guy/gal. The biased firm would then be forced to do the same. It may remain biased – opinions on such matters are notoriously hard to change – but it no longer has the luxury of acting on its bias.

So this sounds promising, and market freedom is beneficial for other reasons as well, so it’s worth to pursue it. But don’t expect too much of the free market. There’s no invisible hand, leading those motivated by selfish motives to destroy racism without really wanting to. Much more needs to be done.

The Causes of Poverty (12): Protectionism

Few propositions command as much consensus among professional economists as that open world trade increases economic growth and raises living standards. N. Gregory Mankiw

Types and justifications of protectionism

Most governments in the world apply restrictions on the international trade of goods. They limit the imports into their countries by way of different measures:

  • Import tariffs (or taxes – “duties” ’96 on imported goods)
  • Regulatory legislation (e.g. public health legislation or sanitation legislation, “purity” legislation etc.)
  • Quotas (limits on quantities of certain goods that can be imported)
  • Anti-dumping laws (laws against selling below production cost)
  • Government-imposed monopolies on the sale of certain goods
  • And other measures.

They do so in order to protect local producers and farmers against foreign competition. That is where the word “protectionism” comes from. The reasons they state for introducing these measures are usually the following:

  • Someone else did it first.
  • Labor in other countries is cheaper, and therefore the products are cheaper.
  • Labor in other countries may be forced labor, e.g. in prison camps.
  • Labor in other countries may be child labor.
  • Governments’ first duties are towards their own citizens.
  • Countries should be self-sufficient and should protect certain important industries such as the food and energy industries, so as not to depend on foreign countries, even if the local products are more expensive than their foreign equivalents.
  • It may take some time for industries to become fully operative. Before that, countries can protect these industries by shielding them from foreign competition.
  • It is more environmentally responsible to consume local goods than products that have to be transported over thousands of miles.
  • Free trade favors the stronger party in a deal, and hence is neocolonial. The outcome of a free deal between unequal partners means more inequality.
  • Free trade encourages off-shoring and outsourcing, and hence job losses in the unprotected markets.
  • Etc.

Many of these justifications are also commonly used in the debate on globalization. (I will not examine the merits of these arguments here ’96 although I believe that some have some merit – because this post deals with the rationale of trade liberalization, not protectionism.)

Both developed and developing countries uses these measures to protect their own producers.

Another distortion of free international trade comes in the form of subsidies for the production of goods to be exported. This is also a protectionist measure because the aim is to protect industries in difficulties, industries which would have problems selling their goods abroad at normal prices.

Origins of protectionism

As is apparent from the quote above, these measures are usually not inspired by economic thought, but emanate from political concerns. Pressure groups in different industries lobby the government and try to have specific protections put in place. At the same time, however, the international community of states has been involved in trade liberalization negotiations (GATT, WTO etc.) that have been going on for decades already and that should result in the scaling down of the different protection measures. Some success has been achieved so far but the talks are still going on.

Trade liberalization and poverty

One of the aims of these negotiations is the reduction of poverty around the world. But does liberalization of farm trade help the poor? I think it does. Free trade brings down the cost of some products, because it may be cheaper to buy these products elsewhere than to produce them yourself. The cost of producing them yourself may be higher than the cost to produce them elsewhere (e.g. because of the climate in your country, or the available knowledge etc.), even if you include the profit margin of the seller in this cost.

Also, international trade’a0allows countries to specialize in certain products only, and specialization increases productivity and diminishes prices (see also the concept of comparative advantage).

There’s yet another reason why free trade may bring down the price of goods. Normally, if trade is free and restrictions on international trade are abolished, then competition will increase. And when competition increases, prices tend to go down.

So there are several reasons why free trade brings down prices. And when prices go down, consumers pay less. And when people pay less, they are generally less poor.

Import tariffs

Also, when import tariffs are cut in trade liberalization measures, prices for the consumers in importing countries go down, and exports in relatively poor export countries go up. So this would help the poor everywhere, the poor consumers in importing countries, and the poor producers in exporting countries.

However, when import tariffs are cut, local production in some countries will go down because local companies will have to compete with lower priced goods from abroad, lower priced because of the absence of tariffs, but often also because of cheaper foreign labor. With job losses as a consequence and hence more poverty for the people working in certain sectors of the economy. Consumers in general may be better off, but not those working in the industries that were protected by tariffs. For them, the benefits of cheaper products may be outweighed by the financial loss of losing their employment.

Furthermore, the government loses tax revenues when tariffs are cut, and therefore may be less able to provide a social safety net to cushion the adverse effects of competition.

However, most economists believe that removing tariffs and having free trade would be a net gain for society (for some evidence of this see here and here).

Import quotas

Import quotas limit the number of foreign goods that can enter a country and be sold there. This increases the prices of the goods because the supply is limited, and also because many of the foreign goods are cheaper than the local equivalents (mostly because of cheaper labor costs abroad). Restrictions on competition push up prices as well. Eliminating quotas therefore lowers prices and benefits the poor.

However, similarly to import tariffs, quotas protect local producers because they suffer less competition from foreign producers. Quotas can save jobs and therefore diminish poverty. But the people in these saved jobs are less numerous than the total population of consumers who benefit from lower prices (and they are also consumers themselves).

Quotas, contrary to tariffs, do not generate tax revenue, so there abolition would not cut into government benefits.

Export subsidies

Export subsidies depress prices and make it harder for non-subsidized producers, often in the poorer countries, to compete. Many local producers and workers will go bankrupted when the same products that they produce, are freely imported from countries where their production is heavily subsidized, sometimes to the extent that they can be sold below production price.

However, the initial effect of slashing export subsidies is an increase in prices of goods. Take the important example of food prices or prices for farm products. Even in rural societies, most people buy more food than they sell. Slashing subsidies would therefore hurt the poor because it makes it more expensive for them to buy food. The World Bank has estimated that slashing all farm subsidies would lead to a 5% increase in average prices. However, net food buyers are generally richer than net sellers; higher prices therefore transfer income from the rich to the poor, on average. Moreover, even the poor who buy more food than they sell (and those who do not sell at all), may benefit from higher prices for farm products because these higher prices boost demand for rural labor and push up wages for farm workers. The farm sector as a whole grows because of an increase in profitability, and this creates employment.

The World Bank has argued that the net effect of all these elements (price increases because of slashing subsidies, higher wages in farm jobs etc.) is positive for the poor.

Conclusion

Free trade helps the poor, and the ongoing trade liberalization talks in the framework of the WTO should be pursued. But at the same time it should be made clear that free trade is not a miracle solution. Poverty has many causes and many solutions and should be attacked from many fronts at the same time.