Do Free Markets Always Produce a Corporate Economy?

Introducing Mutual Exchange: Do Free Markets Always Produce a Corporate Economy?

What would a free market look like? Most people agree that totally freed markets are nowhere to be seen in today’s world. States intruding on voluntary exchange and standing in the way of free association is commonplace across the globe. There are some markets, yes. But they are all, to certain degrees, hampered and regulated, or worse, outlawed. To a certain extent, they are un-free. So what do we make of the libertarian notion of completely and absolutely free markets? What do we have in mind when we talk about a “free market”? Is it more or less a vision of modern American capitalism and a corporate dominated economy or is it something radically different? Are there reasons to think a libertarian free market would look a certain way?

The Monthly Mutual Exchange Symposium is C4SS’s effort to achieve mutual understanding through exchange. October’s Mutual Exchange Symposium will explore the dynamics of a market economy characterized by individual, decentralized ownership, contract and voluntary exchange, free competition, entrepreneurial discovery, and spontaneous order. It will seek to discover whether these kinds of institutional arrangements are likely to manifest in traditionally corporate modes of production characterized by a relatively small number of people who control the means of production and investable wealth.

The Center for a Stateless Society will be publishing an essay on the above subject matter every other day starting on October 1st from a diverse range of thinkers. Kevin Carson, C4SS Senior Fellow and Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory, offers his mutualist perspective on this month’s issue, arguing, as he has done so many times before, that a freed market, without the “artificial property rights, artificial scarcities, subsidies and monopolistic entry barriers or cartels” that characterize capitalistic markets, wouldn’t lead to “wealth concentration and the wage system, or to a corporate economy dominated by a small number of giant business organizations.” Like the individualist anarchists of the late 19th century, Carson sees freed markets as a radically egalitarian force.

Carson’s first interlocutor disagrees because “it is not enough to see corporations as purely a product of government intervention; there are additional powerful forces that tend to lead to market concentration.” Offering his partly Marxist, partly Ostrom-ite, partly ecosocialist perspective, Derek Wall, the International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, humbly, but firmly, maintains “non-capitalist markets tend to lead to the restoration of capitalism.” Despite disagreeing about the relationship of freed markets and corporate capitalism, Wall, who recently published The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom: Commons, Contestation, and Craft, finds common ground with Kevin on the importance of self-governance.

Steve Horwitz, who’s dabbled in the left-wing market anarchist debate before, takes on the role of sympathetic critic once again as the third participant in this month’s Exchange. Dr. Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and author of the recently published Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. Horwitz’s Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism can be seen in his charitable rebuttal to Carson’s lead essay; but he ultimately concludes, “The problems with Carson’s argument are the same ones that seem to infect much left-libertarian writing: too many assertions without careful economic argument about what a truly free market would look like and simultaneously overstating, in my view, the distortions created by the state by ignoring the underlying economics.” But again, Carson’s jousting partner finds common ground with him on the work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom who “challenge the market/state dichotomy” and “force us to think more creatively about what a free society really means.”

In Carson’s rejoinders to Wall and Horwitz, he delves further into his intricate arguments to show why he believes both Wall and Horwitz still underestimate just how much state intervention distorts the market economy and turns it into one dominated by corporations and wage labor. While Carson takes the last word here, the discussion is far from over. Don’t forget to check out October’s Mutual Exchange to gain a better understanding of what a free market might look like and see the arguments from each perspective.

Preliminary Work on the Subject:

  1. Capitalism: A Good Word For A Bad Thing by Kevin Carson
  2. Big Business and the Rise of American Statism by Roy A. Childs
  3. The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand by Kevin Carson
  4. The Subsidy of History by Kevin Carson
  5. Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth by Kevin Carson
  6. Why Corporate Capitalism is Unsustainable by Kevin Carson
  7. Engagement with the Left on Free Markets by Kevin Carson
  8. Six Theses of Libertarian Rhetoric by Roderick T. Long
  9. The Return of Leviathan: Can We Prevent It? by Roderick T. Long
  10. Monopoly: A Nice Trick If You Can Do It by Kevin Carson
  11. Why Market Exchange Doesn’t Have to Lead to Capitalism by Kevin Carson
  12. Capitalism, Not Technological Unemployment, is the Problem by Kevin Carson
  13. Who Owns the Benefit? The Free Market as Full Communism by Kevin Carson

“Free Markets and Capitalism?” C4SS October Mutual Exchange:

  1. Will Free Markets Recreate Corporate Capitalism? by Kevin Carson
  2. Corporate Capitalism, Not Simply a Product of the State by Derek Wall
  3. Will Truly Free Markets be Truly Different? by Steven Horwitz
  4. Capitalism Depends on Artificial, State-Enforced Stability by Kevin Carson
  5. Combating Vulgar Libertarianism by Kevin Carson

Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside C4SS, a rejoinder by our lead essayist, and further contributions if need be. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email C4SS’s Mutual Exchange Coordinator, Cory Massimino, at

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