The Hidden Costs

Over the past decade, especially, the advocates of “the market system” have pushed and pressed that free markets are the best and most efficient way of allocating resources and determining social and political priorities. Their rhetoric is true, yet extraordinarily misleading at the same time. Market systems, even malfunctioning ones, do allocate resources far more effectively than any “command and control” system, as the failure and/or transformation of virtually every dictatorial or government-directed system has demonstrated.

Unfortunately, this “efficiency” is only comparatively better than other systems and certainly not nearly as efficient as its advocates claim. Winston Churchill once commented to the effect that democracy was the worst system of government, except for everything else that had been tried. So, too, is the so-called “free market” system one of the worst ways of allocating resources — except for all the alternatives.

So-called “free market” systems have a number of severe systemic problems. Some have become very obvious over the past year or so. One defect is that prices are determined on the margin at the moment. This means, in real terms, that unregulated prices can spike or crash literally in minutes, and that the effects on society can be devastating. Another is that the balance of supply and demand, if not mitigated by society, can result in millions without jobs or incomes, and a high concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

A third, and largely overlooked, and, I believe, even greater flaw in so-called market pricing is that such pricing is highly inaccurate in assessing the costs of goods and services. This inaccuracy comes from the fact that the prices of goods and services do not reflect the so-called externalities, or as I would term them, more accurately, the hidden costs. The examples of such costs are numerous. Until the creation of environmental laws, factories were allowed to degrade and pollute the environment without restriction, and millions of people either died or had their health permanently injured. Without employment safety laws, employers could, and did, keep costs down by using the cheapest and often the most dangerous equipment and practices and did not have to shoulder any significant fraction of the costs of workplace injuries. These types of externalities have been known now for decades and are commonly recognized, even if the means by which they have been addressed are often deplored by the more conservative advocates of “free markets.”

The problem of hidden costs, however, is far from being completely solved, or even addressed in many cases. In some areas, this is recognized, as on the environmental front, where advocates of the “free markets” continue to oppose measures to deal with global warming and air pollution. In other areas, there’s little or no awareness of such costs.

Take the issue of influenza or swine flu. The causes are known. The means of preventing its spread are also relatively well-known as well, but health authorities are becoming more and more concerned about the danger of pandemics. Why should this be a problem? If sick people just stayed home or in the hospital until the diseases would run their course, how could they infect others? Except all too many people can’t do that. They don’t have health insurance. They won’t get paid if they don’t work. In this time or downsizing and ever greater worker efficiency, there’s often literally no one else to do the work. Take a very simple example. A project/report of some sort is due. Because of downsizing, there’s exactly one expert/analyst left who can do it. If the report isn’t done, all sorts of negative events occur… violations of law, penalty costs, loss of revenue-bearing contracts. The key person has a mild case of the flu, comes to work, works through the illness and gets the job done. In the process, he or she infects three or four other people, one of whom infects an asthmatic colleague or friend who dies. Does that death, or all the other 13,000 flu deaths reported this year so far, ever show up as a negative cost on the business’s or agency’s balance sheet?

How many salmonella deaths have resulted from unsafe food industry practices directly attributable to “cost-minimization”? How many heart-attacks from work pressures caused by too few people doing too much work? There have been scores of lawsuits over the past three decades, in which major corporations were found guilty of manufacturing products that led to user deaths or guilty of practices that created deaths or ill health for thousands of people — and yet the same “free market” cost-minimization pressures persist and the same kinds of practices continue.

So… yes, the so-called free market is better than the alternatives so far tried, but let’s not have any more rhetoric about how wonderful it is and how much better it would be if the government just got out of the regulation business. We’ve already been there, and millions of innocents paid the price… and to some degree, millions still are. There’s definitely room for improvement, because, so far, markets don’t capture all the hidden costs of production and operation, and until they do, so-called free markets won’t be nearly so accurate as adherents claim they are in balancing prices and costs.