There are many who view the free market with skepticism. Some are downright hostile towards it, proclaiming – erroneously so, given the empirical evidence of history – that capitalism hurts labour, the environment, or the poor, and is largely to blame for the evils of this world. Others grudgingly accept that capitalism is a better system than the alternatives, but look down, much like the nobility viewed merchants in Medieval times, on those in the business world as scammers and frauds. After the Steinhoff collapse, many commentators, often those schooled in the humanities, pointed to unethical behaviour of the ‘markets’ or the ‘business community’ or the ‘corporate sector’. In its crudest form, they blamed it all on ‘free market capitalism’ or, that insult of insults, ‘neoliberalism’.
But that interpretation is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘the free market’ actually is. A student pointed me recently to a ten-part television series by one of the leading economists of the twentieth century, Milton Friedman. Recorded in the 1980s but as relevant today as then, Free to Choose spells out Friedman’s belief that the ‘free market’ is preferable to the alternative of government intervention. The series is now freely available on YouTube.
After each episode, Friedman debates with invited guests, many who don’t share his views, about the pros and cons of the market. The moderator at some stage points out that both Friedman’s opponents, one from big business and the other from government, tends to agree that government intervention – say, to increase tariffs – is a good idea. How would he explain this? Friedman responds that it is perfectly rational that the two agree, even if for opposite reasons. ‘The two greatest enemies of free enterprise and freedom in the world, have been on the one hand the industrialists and on the other hand most of my academic colleagues who end up in government, and for opposite reasons.’ His academic colleagues, Friedman argues, want freedom for themselves. ‘They want free speech, they want freedom to write, they want freedom to publish, to do research. But they don’t want freedom for any of those awful businessmen.’
‘The businessmen are very different’, says Friedman. ‘Every businessman wants freedom for somebody else. But he wants special privileges for himself. He wants a tariff from congress.’
Entrepreneurs are in the business of making money. One way to do that is to produce a good or service that is better than the competition through efficiencies or strategy or innovation. So far, so good. Another way to do this is to eliminate the competition altogether. This can be done by getting government to impose a tariff on imports, or to get government to issue special licenses, or to convince government to issue regulation that protect your business from superior competition.
South Africa, of course, has a long history of this type of government intervention. The VOC that set up a refreshment station at the Cape was a company founded on monopoly trading rights. Paul Kruger’s ZAR government was built on a complex network of monopoly licenses with industrialists, and so, too, was the apartheid state. The scale of collusion between government and big business in more recent years ultimately coined a new term: state capture.
This is not free market capitalism. Put differently, it is not the type of capitalism that creates prosperity. Friedman made the same point in the 1980s: ‘It’s not proper to put the issue as industrialists versus government. On the contrary, one of the reasons why I’m in favour of less government, is because if you have more government, industrialists take it over. The two together form a coalition against the ordinary worker and the ordinary consumer. I think business is a wonderful institution, provided it must face competition in the marketplace, and it can’t get away with something except by producing a better product at a lower cost.’
Think of South Africa’s most concentrated sectors – telecommunications, electricity, healthcare, air travel. In each case, the government is either a significant player themselves, or they impose tight regulation. Much of this regulation is founded on good intentions, of course. Licenses often require a minimum safety standard; one wouldn’t want just anyone opening a hospital or flying an airplane. But most often, it is these well-intentioned regulations that strangle competition, creating oligopolistic sectors that favour a few big businesses.
South Africa’s Competition Commission is tasked with investigating and mitigating collusive business practices and other ways firms may abuse their market position. When a large firm acquires another, they need to file an application to the commission for approval. This prevents that one firm dominates a market, pushing up prices and hurting consumers.
But the Competition Commission can only do so much. In many cases brought before it, the South African government is an active player in the market – think SAA – or regulates the industry through other bodies – like the telecom spectrum ICASA controls. We cannot just rely on the Commission to ensure free competition: it requires a widespread acceptance in government that any regulation that impedes competition hurts both workers and consumers. The Minister of Energy signing the power purchase agreements for 27 mostly solar and wind projects – and thus encouraging competition in the market for energy generation – is an excellent step in the right direction. Our failing education or health systems are not so lucky; both suffer as a result of too little competition.
The big misconception about the free market is that ‘the market’ is often equated with ‘big business’. As Friedman notes, they are not the same thing. There is good reason for oligopolistic firms to cozy up to government: it is a great way to get rid of competitors. But over the last decade, South Africans have learnt the painful consequences of what happens when that system becomes entrenched. In contrast, a society that prioritises market competition is most likely to benefit the ordinary worker and the ordinary consumer. This is because competition fosters innovation. And innovation improves productivity, growth and living standards. That is, ultimately, the long road to economic freedom.
**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 2 August edition of finweek.