All the evidence from the economy suggests that the free market system is failing. The list of markets that are failing seems almost endless. Perhaps the most obvious failing market is the housing market. In 1973 a minister (when the state directly provided social housing) could state with some justification that there were no homeless people, today the reverse is true. Yet despite the evidence of thousands either living in temporary local authority accommodation awaiting rehousing andthe countless others living in unsatisfactory private rental property, politicians deny that the housing market is broken.
Why do politicians not recognise the failure of the free market system? One answer is political fashion, which to paraphrase George Orwell pigs ‘public sector bad, private sector good’. This belief in the supremacy of the market system for providing goods and services can be traced back to one influential thinker, Friedrich Hayek. In his book ‘The Road to Serfdom’ (1944) lauded the supremacy of the free market over any alternative economy model. In this very readable book he states that freedom is the free exchange of goods and services between individuals. When the state decides what people want it is tyranny, an economic tyranny comparable to the political tyranny exercised in the fascist and communist states of Europe. Although to this economist cannot see how the provision of state subsidised social housing is a deprivation of economic liberty.
Hayek was a voice speaking in the wilderness until the economic crisis of the 1970s happened. In Britain in 1976 inflation hit the unheard rate of 27%. Politicians desperately looked for a solution and found one in the writings of Hayek and his prophet Milton Friedman. The next twenty years saw a bonfire of regulations and a rush to transfer what public sector services and businesses to the private sector. What politicians hoped and believed was that the introduction of the free market economy was the once and for all solution to the economic ills of the this decade.
Hayek still grips the imagination of the political classes. The privatised railway system in Britain is one of the most expensive and inefficient in the developed world. Yet despite polling evidence suggesting that a majority of British voters would welcome the re-nationalisation of the railways, the majority of politicians regard this as beyond the pale. Only an outsider such as the current opposition leader would argue for this popular cause. There is one certain outcome from this election and that is even if the opposition won the election, the consensus view within parliament would effectively nullify any attempt to return to a nationalised rail service.
There is one failing in the free market philosophy of Hayek that is always ignored. He assumes that the exchange of goods and services takes place between individuals who are equals. The worker for him is free to bargain with the employers to obtain the best possible wage. In Hayek’s impossible scenario the worker and employer equally benefit from the exchange. What he does not recognise is that there is no equality of power in this exchange. While the employer is free to buy the workers labour at the lowest possible wage he can negotiate, the employee very rarely has the power to negotiate the highest possible wage. History demonstrates that in a market lacking employment protections and trade unions, the worker rather than being able to negotiate the best possible wage has to accept the going rate, no matter how poor. It is a market in which Says law applies. Rather than workers negotiating for the highest rate of pay possible, they have to accept the wage whatever rate of pay the employers are prepared to offer.
When the market works well it is unrivalled as a means of exchange of goods and services. The problem is that in Britain it rarely works well. It is the unequal distribution of bargaining power that prevents the market working to the benefit of all. When one person has significantly more bargaining power than the other, be that person an employer or landlord, the other person is at a significant disadvantage. They will inevitably lose out, whether it be having to accept a low wage or by paying a high rent for inferior accommodation. The only way to make the market work is to introduce some equality of power into the relationship. Only then will the more powerful not be able to exploit the less powerful.
One solution would be to introduce legislation to remedy the imperfections in the free market, as was the practice in the 1950s and 60s. However this is not possible when the majority of political classes are committed to Neo-Liberalism or the free market economy. A majority of the of the current generation of politicians would oppose any such policy. There is another solution that might appeal to the free market politician. Greater equality could be introduced into the market and through the legal system so making the exchange of goods and services a more equal relationship. At present civil law with its remedies for civil wrongs is unavailable to the majority of the population, because of the high costs of legal action. Not only is there the high cost but the wealthy subject of a legal action can spin out a case almost indefinitely so discouraging all but the most determined and wealthy of plaintiffs. A reformed legal system that made justice available to all could make Hayek’s free market work in a manner which he intended. The free market politician would have no reason to object as such a change would only be to enforce the rights of the individual and not subject the business to the whims of the almighty state.
This might seem an incredible statement but the legal system of the Roman Empire particularly that of Justinian was in some ways superior to that of contemporary Britain. Under this system the aggrieved individual could bring their case before the local magistrate. These magistrates seem to have had more power than contemporary British magistrates. They could interrogate the plaintiff and witnesses before arriving at a verdict. From what I understand of the Roman system there was an approximate equality of position of the plaintiff and defendant, something lacking in British courts.
There already exist in Britain a network of small claims courts(1). The remit of these courts could be extended to include a new category of civil wrongs. These courts would retain the principle of not penalising the less well off plaintiff, by not privileging those defendants that have legal representation and through preventing the defendant claiming their legal fees from the plaintiff. What matters would be that the court proceeding do not privilege the wealthy, making these courts accessible to the poorest.
There is one example demonstrates the ugly nature of our current legal system. The British Human Right act gives every person the ‘right to enjoy the privacy of your own property.’ In our unbalanced legal system a rich property developer was able to persuade the high court, that privacy meant the right to develop their property regardless of the noise nuisance it caused the neighbour’s. In a fairer legal system there would have been a counter claim by the less well off neighbour, which would have prevented this nonsense becoming law.
One further requirement would be an amendment to the Human Rights Act, an amendment that included new rights such as a fair recompense for work. These rights could be incorporated in a relatively short document as they are only statements of principle and it would be the role of the courts to define what these rights meant in practice.
What I am proposing is a remedy for market failure. A remedy that restores a measure of equality in the bargaining process in the free market. Rather than looking to government to remedy market imperfections, individuals working through the court system will able remedy the failings of the free market. Employers and landlords will be less inclined to adopt exploitative or abusive practices, if they know doing so will involve them in having to defend such practices in open court. Instead of a race to the bottom in which employers vie to adopt most exploitative cost cutting practices to save, there would be a move upwards towards a fairer employment regime.
A salutary lesson for this left of centre economist is that the legislature cannot be relied upon to protect the rights of citizens. Individual legislators are too easily corrupted by powerful corporate interests. As the recent past demonstrates they are only too willing to legislate away the right of citizens to further the corporate interest. Not so long ago a senior member of the government (of a party claiming to represent the workers) saw his role as frustrate the EU commissions attempt to increase the rights of agency workers.There is an old adage that states that the person who can be best relied upon to defend your rights is yourself. The record of the Westminster parliament over the past forty years only too clearly demonstrates the truth of this adage.
This is only intended to a sketch of how the free market could be changed to the benefit of all. Today’s news has demonstrated the need to find an alternative to seeking remedies through parliament. The Prime Minister announced that she would be introducing a policy which entitled all workers to a 12 month period of absence to care for an ill relative. What she failed to make clear was that this would be unpaid leave. A meaningless reform on a par with all the rights of the Soviet citizen that were written into that country’s constitution. Rights that in a police state were meaningless.
(1) There are a number of tribunals that at present that consider these wrongs,but I have left out reference to them for ease of writing.