Picture of my invisible friend taken near Nijverdal

Our invisible friend

Market economy

Market economies have an invisible friend called the invisible hand. In market economies, goods are distributed without the need for a planning agency. According to Adam Smith, it is as if an invisible hand makes this miracle happen. His critics, for instance Karl Marx, did not believe in invisible friends. Not surprisingly, Marx also did not believe in God. Smith claimed that if everyone pursues his own interest, the interest of society is often best served. The followers of Marx felt that the state should plan the production and distribution of goods and services.

I’m the invisible man
Incredible how you can
See right through me

– Queen, The Invisible Man

The following story demonstrates how the invisible hand does its magic. Whether or not it is true does not matter. The story goes that the mayor of Moscow once visited London in the 1980s. Back then, Russia did not have a market economy. The mayor received a tour around the city and noticed that no one queued up for bread as everyone did in Moscow. There was an ample supply of bread at affordable prices. Somehow bread was produced in the right quantities in the preferred tastes and supplied at the right places.

The mayor was amazed about this feat, so he said to his hosts, “Back in Moscow our finest minds work day and night on the bread supply and yet there are long queues everywhere. Who is in charge of the supply of bread in London? I want to meet him!” Of course, no one was in charge. That’s the secret of the market economy. Every baker decided how much he was planning to make and sell and at what price. A few years later, Russia switched to a market economy.

The individual decisions of bakers and the businesses in the supply chain, for instance, farmers and flour mills, make this miracle happen. They all decide for themselves. If a baker could sell more than he produced, he would miss out on profits. The same is true when he has to throw away bread. And some people are willing to pay more if the bread tastes better. Hence, each baker tries to make the right amount of bread in the tastes people desire. It is in their best interest.

In Russia, the state planned how much a corporation should produce of every item. Corporations could not decide about prices. They received compensation for their costs but could not make a profit. Employees received a fixed salary. Corporations that produced more or better products and their employees did not benefit. Corporations also could not go bankrupt when they did a terrible job. That resulted in poor quality products, a shortage of nearly everything and even outright famine from time to time.

It doesn’t always work out well

This miracle has enchanted quite a few people. They believe that everything will turn out fine if only markets can do their job. But there are many instances where a market economy doesn’t produce the best outcome for society. Economists call them market failures. One can think of the following situations:

  • We have more desires than our planet can support. A market economy may fulfil those desires at the expense of our future.
  • Many people cannot make a living in the market economy, for instance, because they lack the skills or have little bargaining power.
  • Corporations use lobbyists and bribe politicians to pass legislation that favours them.
  • A government may be a more efficient producer of products that do not benefit from competition, for instance, roads and the power grid.
  • Corporations may abuse their power and charge higher prices, most notably if they have no competitors.
  • Products can cause harm to people or the environment, but producers may not pay these costs themselves. For example, cigarettes cause health costs.

In most countries, governments interfere with the economy to deal with these market failures. These are situations where pursuing personal interests does not bring the best outcome for society. In many democratic countries, public expenses are about 50% of national income. People in these countries probably believe that a market economy does not always work best. In some areas, markets produce extremely poor outcomes, for instance health care.

An example can demonstrate why. People in the United States live as long as people in Cuba.1 Cuba is poor and does not have a market economy. The United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world. Every possible treatment is available in the United States. Still, in more than 40 countries, people live longer than in the United States.1 Cuba does not spend a lot on health care, only 10% of what the United States spends per person. Healthcare in Cuba appears efficient compared to healthcare in the United States. How can this be?

The available treatments in Cuba are free for everyone. In the United States, you may not receive treatment when you cannot afford it because the United States has a market economy. There may be other causes, for example, differences in the diets in Cuba and the United States. There is no fast food in Cuba because Cuba has no market economy. Life in Cuba may be miserable, but healthcare is one of the few things Cuba has organised well.

Successful societies have market economies and governments that organise things that the market fails to do. And a market economy still needs a government to set the rules and enforce them. Governments of successful societies aim at making the market economy work better where it is beneficial for society and constraining it where it does more harm than good.


Market economy and capitalism are so closely related that many people believe them to be the same. Capitalism is about capital. Capital consists of the buildings and the machines corporations own, but also the knowledge of how to make products and how to bring them to the market. Knowledge of how to make a film entertaining might be capital for a film company. Networks of customers and suppliers can be capital too if they contribute to the success of a business. The same applies to contracts and brands. For instance, the brand Coca Cola has a lot of value because people are willing to pay more for cola when the logo of Coca Cola is printed on the bottle.

Building capital can be costly but in a market economy the value of capital doesn’t depend on the cost to build it but on the future income it is expected to produce. This can lead to peculiar situations. When investors have no faith in the future of a corporation because it is expected to make losses, the buildings and the machines on their own may be worth more than the corporation as a whole as those buildings and machines could be used by other corporations for more profitable purposes.

In most cases more capital means more wealth because capital produces the things people need or desire. Corporations tend to be more profitable if they fulfil those needs and desires better. Therefore, the value of capital in a market economy often depends on how good it can fulfil the desires of consumers. Investors are willing to invest in corporations that fulfil those needs and desires because they expect to make money by doing so.

It is sometimes argued that when investors are free to invest in the corporations of their choosing, the invisible hand channels investment capital to the most useful corporations because they are the most profitable. That’s why the value of corporations is important in a market economy. Businesses ‘create value’ for investors by making consumers happy. Still, the value of a corporation might not reflect the benefits for society as a whole. For instance, if the profitability of a corporation comes from exploiting people or harming life on the planet, a high value could be a bad sign.

And capital can be useful without being profitable, for instance in the public sector. A hospital in the public sector may have no market value because it doesn’t make a profit but it can be useful nonetheless. Capital in the public sector might even be more valuable than in a market economy. For instance, making hospitals private enterprises for profit might not benefit society as a whole. Hospital care may not improve from competition as it is often best to have one hospital serving a particular area. And patients might receive unnecessary treatments when hospitals can make a profit. Healthcare in the United States may create a lot of value for investors but it doesn’t always benefit the patients.

As there are basically two types of people, capitalists who save and invest and ordinary people who borrow and spend, it is hardly surprising that capitalists tend to be wealthier than ordinary people. Capitalism can create wealth because it is the capitalists who finance the investments in the corporations that make the items ordinary people enjoy, but this wealth is often unevenly distributed. From a moral perspective, it is a problem that poverty still exists while there could be enough for everyone. So the question that still remains is how to make the economy work better for the benefit of all?

Featured image: Our invisible friend photographed in the moorlands near Nijverdal. Jürgen Eissink (2018). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Life expectancy per country 2017. World Population Review. [link]

2 thoughts on “Our invisible friend

    • The story of the visit of the mayor of Moscow to London indicates that it exists. Ignoring the existence of the invisible hand can lead to shortage and famine. And failure is not proof of non-existence.


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