All the news is in the headline of an article in yesterday’s New York Times headed "Hansa Market, a Dark Web Marketplace, Bans the Sale of Fentanyl." The article itself, by Nathaniel Popper, begins like this:
A free market ideology has long been the prevailing ethos on the online markets where drugs and stolen credit cards are for sale. But a fierce debate has erupted among the operators and users of these markets over whether free markets need some limits.
Something tells me that that "debate" is mischaracterized here. Something tells me that it’s not "over whether free markets need some limits" but whether this free market needs this limit — i.e. the banning of fentanyl. Already a black market, that of the Hansa dealers is (or was) presumably debating whether or not to create an even blacker one for fentanyl, by keeping it off theirs.
The kind of debate mentioned by Mr Popper — I wonder if he ever contemplates the irony of his name? — isn’t really a debate either but no more than an implied appeal to his fellow lefties against their straw man called "free market ideology." See how right you are? See what progress you are making? Even these scary libertarian drug-dealers are beginning to recognize that there should be limits to their "free market ideology." It can only be a matter of time before they’re good social democrats, just like you.
But free market ideology is a contradiction in terms. Free markets are our only bulwark against ideology and ideologues, sinister people who are in the business of inventing systems of social and political control to limit freedom in one way or another, and especially economic freedom, in the name of some egalitarian utopia, express or implied. The left must cling to its notion of "free market ideology," however, because it pretends that all politics boils down to a choice between ideologies, theirs and ours. So what do you choose: perfection and happiness with the left or liberty for fentanyl dealers and misery for everyone else with the right?
Put like that, it’s pretty obviously a false choice. Yet it’s surprising how many people believe it to be the only choice. That’s why they get so cross with those who don’t agree with them and call them "deplorable" or worse. How can we be so stupid and cruel as to be in the market without buying an ideology that promises perfect equality and happiness for all and instead to prefer one that can offer no more than making fentanyl a bit harder to get hold of?
To be sure, a lot of people on the right are only too willing to play the left’s ideological game by championing "capitalism" or free markets as a rival ideology. One of them is quoted in Mr Popper’s article: "I’m just an anarcho-capitalist to the core. Free markets all day. Free markets will always work themselves out." The implication of the otherwise meaningless "work themselves out" is that free markets will provide a better, freer way to the same sort of utopia promised by the left: one where all life’s unhappinesses and misfortunes will have come to an end.
Free markets are not the solution to any problem — or not to any problem that has not been caused in the first place by someone’s making them unfree. They are certainly not a path to some alternate reality. On the contrary, they are reality. When suppressed, they will pop up somewhere else in the form of black markets, like Hansa; when burdened with taxes and regulation they will become sluggish, distorted and inefficient and lead to perverse outcomes unforseen by the regulators, but they will go on managing people’s economic relations with one another just as they always have done and always will do. What the friends of free markets have to offer is not an ideology of human perfection, not freedom as a means to some other end, but freedom itself, freedom for its own sake — and an end to ideological pretension.