Some well-meaning people on the political left listen to arguments for the free market and respond by saying something such as, “Well, that’s fine if you’re one of the privileged middle class or higher. But for those in poverty, they’re never going to have anything unless the state helps them. Your free market is only good for the rich.”
This just isn’t so. The free market is the best known vehicle for raising the living standards of the poor. People today look at the lifestyles of poor people in the 19th century (and even 20th century) and believe those lives indict the free market. Reality is just the opposite.
Life has always been difficult. Thomas Hobbes famously referred to the natural state of man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The relative wealth that came to the poor in the 19th century — because of industrialization — was a tremendous improvement over what they had experienced before. It’s a testament to just how far we’ve come since then that their lives seem so bad to us today. The fact that the “working poor” weren’t as well off as the capitalists doesn’t change the fact that the market helped the poor immensely.
Michael Strong makes a powerful case for the market when he talks about the experience of the poor in India:
“At the average rate of economic growth under socialism, India would have reached a U.S. standard of living in 2300. At the average rate of economic growth achieved since economic liberalization, India will reach a U.S. standard of living in the mid-21st century. By what standard of morality can one condemn a billion people to 250 years of unnecessary poverty?”
That’s a powerful argument. If you’re a socialist or egalitarian, you might not like it that some people are going to do better than others in a market. But condemning people to the “equality” of a non-market system ensures that the living conditions of the poor will be far worse. Is your egalitarianism worth condemning billions of people to lives of poverty for? If so, please don’t pretend that you really care about the poor.