The Marvellous Market: A Critique by Ted Trainer

Ted Trainer has just written a provocative, concise but important critique of the ‘Marvellous Market’ which he argues is the main cause of our fatal problems. See below:

The Marvellous Market: The Main Cause of our Fatal Problems

A ridiculous claim? Let’s see.

There is no doubt the market system does many important things very effectively. It gets rid of inefficient firms quickly with no argument, it has a powerful tendency to drive prices down, it adjusts supply to demand, it prompts initiative and innovation, and gets capital invested in risky ventures which often end up providing valuable products. And, you would add, there is no acceptable alternative way; everybody knows socialism doesn’t work.

The question is however, could there not be an alternative base for an economic system which did these things but did not have the huge faults this system has. “Faults?” I hear you ask. “What faults?’

Fault 1. The market does not and cannot take into account in any way needs, justice, rights, the welfare of future generations, or the sustainability of the environment. In a market scarce things mostly go to those who can pay more for them. Those who own resources will sell them for the highest price they can get, and richer people can pay higher prices. Poor people have little or no “effective demand”. Need or justice is totally irrelevant and cannot influence the outcome.

That is why one-third of the world’s grain production, more than 600 million tonnes every year, is fed to animals in rich countries, while around 850 million people are hungry. That is why the rich countries take 75% of the world’s resource output and consume resources at a per capita rate that is 15-20 times that of the poorest half of the world’s people.

We have the sense not to allow market forces to have any role in the biggest sector of the economy. Most work occurs within households, where we practice pure Marxist communism. We all contribute according to our capacity to do so and we receive according to our needs. If the market determined what happened mum would only sell dinners to dad, because he has most money, and the kids and grandma would starve.

Fault 2. Even worse is the fact that market forces ensure that the wrong things are developed. For example in the Third World where there is obviously an urgent need for development of simple farms and businesses whereby the abundant and idle labour could be producing basic necessities for the majority of people who are very poor, very little development of this kind occurs. Just about all investment goes into developing farms and factories to export to rich countries. Why? Simply because in the market system these are the purposes that will yield most return on investment. Investors will never maximise their profits developing industries to produce what is most needed, because the most urgent needs are felt by poor people and it is always much more profitable to produce what relatively rich people want. (See, TSW: Third World Development [1].)

Even the most impoverished Third World countries have the basic resources of land, rainfall, labour, traditional knowledge and skills to meet basic needs and provide a good quality of life, (for an impressive illustration of the alternative see TSW: The Chikukwa Project [2]) but in a market system those resources must remain idle until some corporation thinks it can make better profits using them than it can make anywhere else in the world. The conditions the IMF and World Bank put on loans to indebted Third World countries explicitly prevent them from devoting substantial resources to urgent needs.

Fault 3: The market makes labour and money into commodities. There are many things that should not be bought and sold, including children, the decisions of politicians, New York’s Central Park, and prison sentences. When labour is treated as a commodity, a mere input to production the owner of capital can buy if and when he wishes, many people are left unemployed. A good society would make sure everyone had a livelihood, the capacity to contribute to the producing that needs to be carried out, self-respect and security, and freedom from the destructive psychological effects of unemployment. Only uncivilized societies have unemployment; it is very easily avoided.

Fault 4. The market system inevitably transfers much wealth to the wealthy. Firstly, they can get an income without working for it, just by investing/lending money, or leaving it in a bank. Because rich people have a lot of surplus money to lend they receive far more interest than poor people, who are often in debt and paying interest on loans. Margrit Kennedy [3] estimates that because all aspects of the production process involve borrowed capital on which interest must be paid, the compounding results in more than 40% of every price we pay going to those who have lent capital.

More importantly the market system results in the loss of assets when debt cannot be repaid. A buyer who cannot keep up his payments will probably have the house “repossessed” by the lender, at A considerably lower price than he undertook to pay for it. This mechanism is at its most vicious in the international arena where a country that cannot pay its debts will be forced by its creditors to sell (to rich people) its vital assets such as public power generators, railways, water supply systems … at bargain basement prices. Greece today provides a text book example case.

The core point is that the market system cannot but enrich the rich. It does other things, including produce “trickle down” benefits. But you cannot be surprised that global inequality rates have accelerated to the point where it is estimated that half the world’s wealth is now owned by 1% of the world’s people.

Fault 5. The market is horrendously inefficient. Conventional economists claim that the market makes the most “efficient” allocations of resources and investment. This is absurdly wrong. It is only true if we define “efficient” in terms of the monetary return on investment. If on the other hand we are concerned with using resources and capital to meet needs most efficiently, or to do what is morally right, or to develop what is best for the environment, then market forces are not only appallingly inefficient, they will almost always result in precisely the wrong outcome!

Fault 6. The market damages society. When buying and selling within a market situation is allowed to become the main mechanism determining what happens in a society, then desirable social attitudes, bonds, relations and social cohesion are diminished or driven out. This is the most disturbing consequence of the Neo-liberal triumph. It makes altruism and cooperation and concern about the pubic good irrelevant at best, or liabilities holding the individual back. It generates a more selfish, mean, unequal, predatory and callous society, focused on individual advancement and beating others in competition. There is no place in the market for the things that make a society admirable, such as generosity, prioritizing the welfare of the other or those in most need, doing what’s good for society, giving and nurturing. In fact there is strong incentive to disadvantage the other, and indeed to deceive and cheat and be predatory.

The Neoliberal triumph has made the market so central that this is now referred to as a “marketing society”. But a society is made up of far more things, and far more important things than mere monetary exchanges intended to maximize benefit to an individual. In fact there is a contradiction between what maximizes the wealth of self-interested individual and what makes a society possible, let alone admirable. A society is made up by the things that are collective, the things that are by definition not to do with individual self interest thing such as traditions, customs, a moral code, sense of decency, civility, standards, myths, aspirations, beliefs, rationality, aesthetics and a political system. In view of these many often subtle factors, to allow individual self-interest to become the overwhelming determinant of what happens is a serious mistake. As Polanyi stressed long ago, it literally destroys and drives out the things that constitute society.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that it is very much in the interests of the owners of capital to have just about everyone convinced that everything should be left to the market. They don’t want their capacity to do good business to be interfered with by regulation which prioritises social values over freedom to buy and sell at the best price. Some decades ago Australian banks had to make a certain amount of money available to lend at lower interest rates to home buyers. But they don’t want to be obliged to do that when they can make far higher profits lending to people able and willing to pay the highest interest rates the market will bear for luxury housing. That’s why now it is not possible to buy a small, cheap, environmentally friendly (and beautiful) mud brick house, while large numbers can never hope to own a house.

Again the market mechanism does some things effectively and there might be an important place for it in a tolerable society, but too few recognize that it is responsible for most of the world’s problems.

But, you are probably saying, TINA. I think there is a very satisfactory alternative which is detailed in TSW, The Alternative Society [4]. It does not have an economy run by a centralized state and its economy could mostly be made up of private firms. The core notion is small scale local economies run by local people to benefit local communities. These might have a significant role for a market system although over time we might decide that that is not desirable. We will probably soon be forced by worsening global conditions to explore this option, because a society driven by market forces is increasingly failing to provide for us.


(1) TSW: Third World Development.

(2) TSW: The Chikukwa Project.

(3) Kennedy, M., (2006), Interest and Inflation Free Money: Creating an Exchange Medium That Works for Everybody and Protects the Earth, first published in 1987 and updated repeatedly afterward, last time in 2006 (in German anyway). The English 1995 version is available online.

(4) TSW: The Alternative Society.. THEALTSOCLong.htm

3 Responses to “The Marvellous Market: A Critique by Ted Trainer”

  1. Mark Burch says:

    A fascinating read, to which I would add:

    1. The market delivers products and services that aren’t needed because they are profitable while it fails to deliver products that are needed but are not profitable. A particularly disturbing example of this is the market failures in the field of big pharma and GMO crop varieties. Big pharma is producing lifestyle drugs that people take continuously for things like erectile dysfunction and hypertension but ignore development of new antibiotics because they are usually used only once or twice in a lifetime, or development of drugs for diseases and conditions that are generally found in low income countries like malaria. GMO crops were never demanded by farmers, but through a process of savvy marketing and coercive legal strategies, products no one asked for are now making immense profits for agri-chemical companies.

    2. The market fails to incorporate social and environmental externalities into prices—a long discussed deficiency.

    3. Markets enable the “de-humanization” of the economy through corporate buy-backs of shares. When corporations buy back their shares from natural people, this is essentially a transfer of wealth from natural persons to a legal fiction, the corporation, thus giving corporate managers enormous power over physical assets which in effect belong to no one to whom they must be accountable—not even shareholders.

    4. The concept of “the market” tends to get reified in political and social discourses to such a degree that its application is over-generalized. That is, we gradually come to view essentially non-economic issues in terms of market relations and the market itself tends to become a sort of totem spirit that somehow operates wisely and fairly in a realm beyond human influence. “The market” then, including its “invisible hands,” becomes a superstition whose self-appointed spokespeople wield tremendous power in society. Telling, however, is the absolutely terrible record of those who style themselves as experts in market behaviour (economists) to accurately predict market behaviour. The effect is to place most domestic and international policy on a completely delusional footing.

    5. As noted by Bruce Alexander at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “market oriented” societies generally subject their members to very high rates of involuntary psycho-social dislocation—a psycho-emotional syndrome with many similarities to post-traumatic stress disorder. High rates of change in societies, population migrations in search of employment, competition for economic reward that shreds the fabric of social relations, demolition of physical artefacts essential to a sense of place and identity in the name of ‘development’ all strengthen psycho-social dislocation. It also happens that high rates of psycho-social dislocation correlate strongly with high rates of addictions of all kinds as people self-medicate in one way or another to alleviate the emotional distress of this syndrome. Addictions work to the advantage of monied elites as they represent diverse forms of coerced consumption that can be highly profitable.

  2. Christiane Kliemann says:

    I am absolutely with you with almost everything you write, except for one thing: households are not at all practicing communism, but mainly exploitation of women. All care work that is necessary to reproduce “human resources” is mostly done by women, without adequate social appreciation and support. This exploitation correlates with the exploitation of nature whose reproduction is also carelessly taken for granted, such as the reproductive work of women.

  3. Barb Coddington says:

    All of this is so true. How do we wrench power away from those who are killing us with a system of which they are blind to see fault?

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