the free market

The free market sounds like the world’s most wholesome farm stand. Deep in the heart of Real America, hard-working farmers compete to sell you the worst possible potato at the highest possible price while you haggle to obtain the best possible potato at the lowest possible price.

It’s supposed to be a metaphor for a capitalist economy. A “market” is a place where people buy and sell stuff, and the “free” part means nobody is supposed to come in and tell the farmers how much to charge for their potatoes or how much to pay their farmhands.

The idea is, if you let people make their own deals, pick out their own potatoes, and just generally stay out of everybody’s business, the market will reach a happy, stable medium. People will buy potatoes at a fair price, farmers will make a profit, and farmhands will be paid exactly what they’re worth.

Whether or not that’s the best way to sell crops is a whole other issue, but one thing is certain: Real-life economies are a lot more complicated than farm stands.

It can be hard for us to talk about what is good for our economy when we call it “the free market” because it makes us think about farmers and potatoes and good honest back-breaking work. Mom and Pop Farmer don’t necessarily have anything to teach us about Uncle Derivatives Trader.