The Untold Story
What is often lost in the short history-class-version of this case is the effort by the company to comply and remove the segregation law. This may appear counterintuitive to some, but the market reality made segregation expensive. Looking at the requirements of the law (see above) makes it clear why securing separate accommodations, either by car or partition, is costly, and when you are in the business of selling seats, increasing the likelihood of empty seats works against that interest.
In the 1950’s the economist Gary Becker at the University of Chicago began to write about the economics of discrimination. His writing was contemporaneous to the Brown case which was decided in 1954. Becker’s book, titled The Economics of Discrimination and released in 1957, began a discussion on discrimination in the market which has yielded counterintuitive results in many instances.
Using economic assumptions to describe discriminatory behavior, Becker observed two basic features of discrimination. First, that discrimination may depress the wages and employment opportunities of those discriminated against and conversely that the discriminator may pay higher wages to avoid hiring a minority.
If for example, a white worker gets paid $2 more an hour than an African American worker, the employer is paying a $2 an hour penalty to maintain his discriminatory preferences. Over time, this is a difficult practice to maintain in a competitive environment. The result is parity when comparing equal, similarly situated people. Most employers or businesses are not willing to pay that penalty in the long run.
Since Becker’s book, others have also observed the impact of discrimination in markets and the tendency to move away from discrimination unless the base is sufficiently broad and the taste for discrimination is rather strong. However, in this scenario discrimination is highly likely to arise via democratic mechanisms as well, as it did in the South unless there is a constitutional constraint to prevent discriminatory democratic results.
Additionally, when faced with strong preferences for discrimination those discriminated against are likely to move to geographic areas with more equal outcomes, much like the movement to the north of about six million African-Americans during The Great Migration, which was certainly exacerbated by Jim Crow.
The Free Market Is the Great Equalizer
What Plessy illustrates is that even in a place willing to legalize discrimination (meaning the democratic taste for it was sufficient to be legislated, even if it failed to reach a true majority due to potential disenfranchisement), the market was pushing toward more equal market outcomes and had to be artificially constrained. Essentially, the Plessy verdict granted a special interest group their preference and arrested the development of the market preventing it from moving away from discriminatory practices.
With the hindsight of Becker and others like him, we see how Plessy set the stage for years of subsidized discriminatory behavior. In practice, the schools and other segregated venues behaved as cartels with the ability to impose costs on an industry and essentially remove it as a matter of competition for certain services. If all market actors faced the same imposed costs, there is no incentive to compete to remove that cost.
The Plessy verdict prevented the market from removing discriminatory behavior and it also created a rent-seeking incentive. With the Plessy verdict, racists and segregationists learned they could implement their preference of a segregated society by diffusing the costs among the population at large. Until Brown, these rent-seekers were able to implement their market preferences and it is no surprise that after Plessy Jim Crow continued to grow throughout the South.
There is also a political reason why markets should be preferred over legislation to remove discrimination. Markets tend to work quietly in the background; there is no grand political movement, no sweeping legislation, and very little reactive backlash against those politics that ingrain, often unintentionally, discriminatory views.
In contrast, the doux commerce thesis suggests markets are institutions that bring about desired social change, peace and cordiality, and anti-discrimination becomes a byproduct of this thesis. Two of the most recent advocates of this view have been Deirdre McCloskey in her Bourgeoise trilogy, and Nathan Oman in his book, The Dignity of Commerce. Markets create more peaceful, less discriminatory communities simply because they penalize discrimination and introduce personal interactions within the market.
The lessons of Plessy, often overlooked, are two-fold. The market removes discrimination in a more peaceful manner if we allow it to do so but the desire to intervene on behalf of one group or another is very alluring (an argument to restrict, maybe chain, democratic governments may be merited to some degree based on this observation).
When we take the stance that intervention is necessary we increase the risk of a less peaceful outcome and increase the incentive for rent-seeking behavior, even when discrimination is not the underlying impetus. Understanding the history of this pivotal Supreme Court case teaches how markets provide more favorable outcomes and dispels the myth that free markets are tools of oppression.
In the United States, I have noticed increasing amounts of local municipalities instituting minimum wage laws. This is happening in many states across America, with many people supporting it in the hopes of bettering workers’ wages. Unfortunately, minimum wage is economically dysfunctional and unethical, yet so many people who lack economic or ethical knowledge are […]
1. Gains from trade: In any economic exchange, freely chosen, both parties benefit–at least in their own minds.
2. Subjective value: The value of any good or service is determined by the individual human mind.
3. Opportunity cost: Nothing is free, and the cost of anything is what you give up to get it.
4. Spontaneous order: Society emerges not from top-down intention or planning but from individuals’ actions that result in unplanned outcomes for the whole.
5. Incentives: Individuals act to maximize their own reward.
6. Comparative advantage: Cooperation between individuals creates value when a seller can produce a given item or service at a lower cost than the buyer would spend to produce it himself.
7. Knowledge problem: No one person or group knows enough to plan (and force) social outcomes, because information necessary for social order is distributed among its members and revealed only in human choice.
8. Seen and Unseen: In addition to the tangible and quantifiable effects, there are quite often invisible costs and unmet opportunities to any action or policy.
9. Rules matter: Institutions influence the decisions individuals make. For example, property rights extend from the reality of scarcity which demands that ownership must be vested in individuals and not a collective.
10. Action is purposeful: Each person makes choices with the intention of improving his or her condition.
11. Civil society: Voluntary association permits people of all backgrounds to interact peaceably, create value, cultivate personal character, and build mutual trust.
12. Entrepreneurship: Acting on an opportunity to gather underused, misused, or undiscovered resources and ideas to create value for others.
It’s been my observation that the Left dismisses the notion of spontaneous order in markets (hence, free markets are rejected), while the Right dismisses the notion of spontaneous order in biology (hence, evolution is rejected). Apparently there are those who believe the Left’s rejection of spontaneous order is more widespread than just markets.
Bryan Caplan would disabuse them of this notion.
But ultimately, I think resentment of markets has little to do with incomprehension of “spontaneous order.” Key point: As Hayek emphasizes, markets are only one form of spontaneous order. Others include language, science, fashion, manners, and even informal hiking paths. In each case, individuals pursue their own plans with no central direction, yet a tolerably well-functioning social order emerges. And leftists rarely express resentment – or even worries – about the social value of any of these. So how can spontaneous order be the crux of the issue?
My preferred story is much simpler: Leftists look at the world of business and see greedy people leading and prospering. This upsets people of almost every ideology if they dwell on it. On an emotional level, human beings want people with noble intentions in charge. Who then are leftists? They’re the sub-set of humans who feel these emotions with exceptional intensity and durability – and accept a group identity that reinforces such emotions. Why is a power-hungry politician who bullies strangers with big plans and pompous speeches more “nobly intentioned” than a greedy businessman who woos strangers with fine wares and low prices? I don’t know, but clearly I’m in the minority here.
Now go read “Person or Principle” over on Sarah Hoyt’s blog.
Whether it’s Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan leading the Million-Man March, anti-WTO (World Trade Organization) protesters, or AIDS activists, we’re frequently treated to the chant demanding “People Before Profits.” Since profit demagoguery is a deceptively appealing tool used by scoundrels everywhere, let’s demystify the concept of profits.
Let’s first get its definition out of the way. Profits represent the residual claim earned by entrepreneurs. It’s what’s left after all other costs—wages, rent, interest—have been paid. The entrepreneur is generally seen as the person who takes risks, innovates, and makes decisions. It’s important to recognize that profits are a cost of business just as are payments to labor, land, and capital. If wages, rent, and interest are not paid, labor, land, and capital will not be offered; similarly, if profit is not paid, entrepreneurs won’t be seen either.
Here’s Williams’s law: whenever the profit incentive is missing, the probability that people’s wants can be safely ignored is the greatest.
The first lesson to be taught is that when we run across a situation we don’t like – “outrageous exploitation of sick people,” for example – we should start by asking how the situation came about and why it persists. What’s actually going on here? That’s an extremely important lesson: for the dinner table, the conference room, the legislative hall, and the faculty lounge as well as the economics classroom. We all have a tendency, especially when we’re filled with indignation, to begin with the conclusions and subsequently to choose the facts that will enable us to reach our preestablished results. That does little to promote understanding; it merely hardens opinions already held. It does not lead to learning. And it fosters debate rather than discussion. Doesn’t it make far more sense to ask why, if the situation is as intolerable as it seems to be, it continues to exist? Social phenomena are not facts of nature, like mountains. They emerge from the choices individuals make in response to the situations they encounter, situations that are in turn largely created by the choices other people make. If we want to change society, we must first understand it. The first step toward understanding how markets work, and the beginning, I would say, of all social understanding, is the recognition that social phenomena are the product of particular choices in response to particular incentives. Incentives matter! To fix any social problem, we must alter the incentives. To do that, we must first discover what they are.
Economists have long understood the dynamic at work here. Marx and other socialists thought that those in charge of the planning process, and for Marx that was the whole community, could rationally determine what to produce and how best to produce it in the absence of markets, exchange, and prices. Since Mises’s famous essay in 1920, however, we have known that doing so is not possible.
Genuine market prices are necessary for people be able to make determinations of value in anything larger than a household. Without prices, there is no way to know, not just what people value but (more importantly) how to make what they value using the least valuable resources possible.
In other words, rational production decisions are impossible without market prices, and market prices can’t exist without exchange and therefore there has to be private ownership, especially of the means of production.
But what happens when those given the power to make such decisions realize they cannot achieve their perhaps well-intentioned goals? The power does not go away. More often than not, the first reaction is precisely what we’ve seen in Venezuela: crack down harder on producers for not living up to impossible demands and ration goods to punish consumers for “hoarding.” And when that doesn’t work, go to more draconian authoritarianism, and do whatever it takes to hold on to power.
After a while, these exercises of brute power have consequences. They attract those with a comparative advantage in exercising such power (and perhaps those who have a high consumption value for doing so) into positions of power. Marxism is not Stalinism, but the inability of Marxian socialism to live up to its promises creates the conditions that make Stalinism possible and likely. In other words, Stalinism is an unintended consequence of Marxian socialism.
In addition, as state control becomes more clearly ineffective, people start to work around it by establishing distorted forms of market exchange. Bribery of politicians and bureaucrats, threats to producers, cronyism, and nepotism all become the ways of getting things done. Scarce resources have to be allocated somehow, and markets are like weeds in that they will grow in the cracks left by the failures of planning.
To the outside world, corruption and poor implementation caused socialism to fail. But that gets matters completely backward: corruption and ineffective political actors are not the cause of socialism’s failure, but a result of that failure. When you make real markets illegal and when your attempts at planning inevitably fail, what you get is the bribery and corruption of black markets. Once again, these are not what Marxism intends, but they are an inevitable unintended consequence.
The good news is that humanity is nowhere near peak everything; the bad news is that we are also nowhere near peak doom.
It didn’t take Congress or the president to force these changes. It wasn’t the courts (though lawsuits are pending). We didn’t need a new law or regulation. It was the pressure brought by individual consumers and investors acting on their preferences (and self-interest) in a free market.
This is hardly the first time that companies have had to respond to consumers pressure. From both right and left, consumer boycotts, bad media, and shareholder activism have forced companies to improve workers’ rights, product safety, political bias, the treatment of women and minorities, and more. Neither conservatives nor liberals will always agree with the purpose of such campaigns, but no one can deny that they work. Abuse your customers, they won’t buy from you. Abuse your employees, they won’t work for you. Produce a lousy product, someone else will produce a better one and put you out of business. That’s the power of free-market competition. Produce a lousy product, someone else will produce a better one. That’s the power of free-market competition.
Compare this to how government responds when it fails. We are still waiting for the Veterans Administration to change its behavior or punish those responsible for its various scandals over many years. The public schools fail year after year, decade after decade, and their response is to demand more money and try to prevent parents from going elsewhere.
Also posted to my Facebook page. I’ll be curious to see how many people chime in to say it’s all wrong.