The conversation on free markets needs to be changed.
As passionate, vocal advocates for liberty, we’ve all come face to face with that person who insists that we produce an example of a society with a purely free market on the spot: “If having a free market is such a good idea why can’t you point to a time in history where there’s been a ‘free market’?”/ “Has there ever been a truly free society?”
Their skepticism is certainly not without warrant.
Notable attempts have been made to reconcile some picture of a historic “free market”. David Friedman likes to point to the examples of Saga-period Iceland and medieval Ireland. While both of these might pass as perfectly good examples of freedom prevailing in history, the dissenter will not typically be satisfied. What they’re really asking for is a modern, observable example- one that they’re already familiar with, and, as anthropologist and early “Occupy” movement organizer David Graeber explains, one they’ve already decided you can’t satisfy.
Thus, in combatting the dubious, loaded demand to “provide an example of a society with a free market”, I propose a new answer: All of them. That’s right, every society that has ever existed has had a free market, but not like you’d think.
Charles W. Johnson explains that “when libertarians talk about markets, or especially “the market”, singular, we often mean to pick out the sum of all voluntary exchanges- any economic order that is based, to the extent that it is based, on principles of personal ownership of property, consensual exchange, free association, and the freedom to engage in peaceful competition and entrepreneurial discovery.” Clearly, no matter how totalitarian the regime, every society imaginable has had some measurable degree of a free market. This can be seen from the spontaneous market economies that crop up between prisoners living in harsh, oppressive conditions to Lysander Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company that boldly and outwardly challenged the U.S. postal monopoly in nineteenth century America (Unsurprisingly, Spooner’s ALMC outperformed the U.S. Postal Service, effectively lowering the price of mail while it was allowed to operate).
Both the prisoners and Spooner were living under conditions of government oppression. The important thing to recognize is that the two examples contain varying degrees of government, and, thus, varying degrees of liberty. In light of this, one might even ask the skeptic “Do you know of some society where government rules over our every action?” Total freedom and total liberty are theoretical poles on the spectrum of political society. As libertarian columnist Anthony Gregory succinctly put it, “Government is the negation of liberty, so- total government- you can do the math…”
As libertarians, we recognize that the freer the society, the better. The connection between political freedom and human flourishing can be observed with a mere cursory glance at history. It is our job to articulate this truth, and what better way to address the question of where liberty exists than with a simple “look around.”