Two books I have recently read, Treasure Islandsand Merchants of Doubt, have each highlighted, in their different ways, how deeply rooted deception is in our current economic order. Banks hide behind many layers of secrecy, shuttling funds around shady offshore jurisdictions, in order to get by with transactions that would never pass public scrutiny, and to hide profits from taxation. Manufacturers have turned to the business of manufacturing doubt about the environmental impacts of their activity, systematically engaging in smear campaigns against scientists and whistle-blowers who reveal these impacts and costs, and funding “studies” to convince that everything from CO2 to acid rain to DDT to cigarettes are clean, safe, and sustainable.
A slew of recent high-profile scandals have illustrated the same tendency. The world’s largest company by market cap, Apple, Inc., was sued by the US Department of Justice for secretly colluding to fix prices on e-books. More recently, damning allegations have come to light that the world’s largest company by revenue, Wal-mart, engaged in systematic bribery to gain a major foothold in Mexico, and, most seriously, that the bribery was then carefully covered up by senior Wal-mart executives. A couple months further back, US meat-lovers were scandalized to learn that supermarkets and fast-food chains had been selling them beef padded with ammonia-sprayed “pink slime,” prompting a massive public backlash and the virtual shutdown of the pink slime industry, may it rest in peace.
Despite their differences, all of these episodes reveal a troubling problem in our economic order—the truth doesn’t sell. The truth about tobacco doesn’t sell cigarettes, the truth about beef doesn’t sell burgers, the truth about e-book prices doesn’t make nearly as much profit as an artificially jacked-up price, the truth about Wal-mart’s corporate practices isn’t gong to endear them to consumers.
This problem points to a deeply-rooted contradiction in the free market model—its hostility to the free flow of information. For Adam Smith and other free market theorists, free access to information was a key pillar of a successful free market. If a given exchange was to be genuinely free, and thus maximize the total benefit for buyer and seller, then buyers and sellers had to have roughly equal knowledge of the relevant information. If I sell you a rhinestone necklace while deceiving you into thinking that it is in fact diamond, then we wouldn’t call this a properly free exchange, even if you eagerly bought it at the offered price. The resulting transaction would not have taken place at the true equilibrium price, the point at which markets are maximally efficient.
But of course, while maximally efficient for the market as a whole, the equilibrium price is not where either buyers or sellers would prefer to transact, since it limits the gain that either can make. A buyer would prefer to take advantage of a going-out-of-business sale, in which a distressed merchant has to sell goods at well below the normal equilibrium price in order to get rid of them quickly. A seller would prefer to take advantage of a naive first-time buyer, who has no idea how much something normally costs, so he can charge far more than it’s worth—hence the rip-off merchants that like to cluster around entry points for foreign tourists. As this latter illustration shows, limited information can provide tremendous opportunities to avoid the equilibrium price and maximize gain.
Generally, it is the seller who is in much the stronger position to make use of this information gap, since the seller usually knows a great deal more about the actual value of the goods and where they’ve come from than the buyer. The seller may know that a product has cost him $10 to acquire, and he will have to sell it for $12 in order to turn a profit; but if he can convince the buyer that in fact the market price is $20 (say, by normally selling it at that price, and occasionally having a 50% OFF CLEARANCE SALE!), then so much the better. This kind of disequilibrium is of course ubiquitous, but normally it doesn’t bother us that much, because it is kept in check by competition. Assuming plenty of competitors in the marketplace, and assuming they aren’t colluding with one another (which, as the Apple case shows, is not always a safe assumption), we can count on the selling price as a whole to gravitate toward equilibrium, especially if we are willing to be shrewd shoppers and only buy things when they’re on sale, recognizing that the sale price is likely to be closer to the real price.
But rather harder to exorcise is the suppression of unsavory information about a product—if it comes from an unethical source (e.g., blood diamonds or Nikes), or contains harmful ingredients (e.g., Coke, a Big Mac, or tobacco), or else is just useless for its supposed purpose (e.g., a high proportion of patented medications and hygiene products, for which dirt-cheap natural substitutes are often far more effective). Any of this information might cause the consumer to pay far less for the product, or reject it altogether (which would, of course, force the price down for those still willing to buy). While we might be able to rely on McDonalds to sooner or later make it clear to us that Burger King is systematically overstating the cost of beef, by underselling them if they price it too high, it is in neither McDonalds’s nor Burger King’s interest to be forthcoming with us about the unsavory backstory of that beef, just as, competitors though they may have been, everyone in the tobacco industry could agree to work together in manufacturing doubt and disinformation about the dangers of smoking. Collusion in the suppression of information is the order of the day.
What all this suggests, of course, is the dependence of any kind of free market on a robust moral order, the dependence of The Wealth of Nations on The Moral Sentiments. When the pursuit of profit becomes a self-justifying end, truth becomes a readily dispensable commodity, because truth will not maximize profit. And as truth is exchanged for profit, a genuinely free market is exchanged for a war of all against all, in which consumers and producers are locked in an endless battle of trying to deceive and outwit the other. If a free market can work, it can only work within a vigorous shared commitment to truth and honesty that runs deeper than any desire for gain, an integrity that “swears to its own hurt.” Whether such a shared commitment can be counted on in any society, much less in our current culture that is at war with the very idea of truth, is an open question, and one that needs to be faced more honestly by the proponents of free market orthodoxy.