Free Markets: the Basis of Business

At the jam at Avo's last Wednesday night, the group seemed sort of small. That happens often during the summer with people off vacationing or practicing for gigs or resting after a hectic weekend festival. The music is still fun, but my fingers get a stronger workout. And since I was the only banjo picker, I had to wait until the music slowed down before I could walk outside to cool off. When I stepped out under the stars, I discovered another group of people jamming under the gazebo. "Wow, I didn't know y'all were out here," I said.

Sue Forebucks, a lawyer and slide ukulele player, was sitting on the outskirts resting. She said, "What! Did you think you guys had a monopoly on the jam?"

"Of course," I said as I sat down. "We're the Microsoft of Music. Maybe I'll sic the Department of Justice on y'all and put a stop to all this caterwauling. That makes about as much sense as forcing Bill Gates to sell copies of Netscape along with his own Internet browser."

"Well," said Sue shifting uncomfortably in her chair, "I agree that the so-called solutions offered in the press seem stupid, but DOJ is using whatever leverage they have to prevent a monopoly from skewing the dynamics of the economy."

"The government is what skews the economy, not a company," I complained. "They should just keep their nose where it belongs."

"I'm surprised to hear that coming from you," she said. "I thought you were a believer in the sanctity of the free market."

"I am," I said. "Right now, anyone with access to the Internet can go download Netscape for free and install it. Or they can even purchase Opera, probably the best browser on the market, and install that if they want. The government shouldn't be regulating the market."

She laughed. "You just did what you're always warning me about, confusing two separate issues into one. Just because the browser battle is stupid doesn't mean the government can't regulate the marketplace."

"Consumers don't need a government nanny to watch out for their purchases," I said. "Besides, we've already got the FDA and FTC and the FCC and all the other F-word agencies interfering with internal marketing decisions while supposedly helping consumers have better products."

"Now you're confusing consumer protection with market protection," she said. "It's a common error. I mean, because the government has all these consumer protection agencies, modern Americans think that's the job of the government, and the people who oppose them think the government should leave the market alone."

I nodded. "Exactly. The government should stay out of business."

"Maybe," she said, "but it can't stay out of the market. Our laws actually created the free market in the first place. Consider the converse of your Netscape shopping. Bill Gates can pack up his company and move to any other country in the world. Do you think he'd go to Singapore or some other place that doesn't enforce any of the intellectual property laws like patents, copyrights, or trademarks? Of course not. He makes money by relying on government laws that have created a safe marketing opportunity for him. Surely the government has the right to ensure that other companies have the same opportunities."

"Well I suppose," I said, trying to think of a way to gracefully get out this conversation. I flexed my fingers dramatically. "I hate to monopolize all your time so I better get back inside before they realize a banjo picker isn't an absolute necessity for a good jam." I skedaddled.