In public policy we use the word ‘market’ in radically different ways and in fundamentally inconsistent ways.

For the liberal (or if you prefer, neoliberal) the word ‘market’ is used to describe a special kind of human interaction – the ‘free exchange of goods or services at an agreed price’. The beauty of this liberal vision lies in the market’s seemingly magical ability to achieve three wonderful things at the same time:

  • It is a place of freedom – free individuals come together to bargain and exchange
  • It is a place of community – people make promises to each other and bind each other by contracts
  • It is a place of productivity – time, energy and money flow into the places which have the most value.
Of course, this vision of the market is just a beautiful ideal. In the real world:
  • The starting point is not fair, and advantages accrue to those already advantaged, and so freedom turns into exploitation.
  • When relationships of power are radically unequal then the community we create is atomised and elitist.
  • The most productive is not always the best; commerce can destroy nature, community, industry and even politics itself (as we are finding out to our cost in the UK).
And most liberals do know this. The market is their ideal, but they accept that in many areas there will be what they call ‘market failure’ and – for various reasons – it is recognised that the ideal market cannot really exist. So they will – to varying degrees – accept that markets must be controlled or an alternative system offered in their place. The market is for the liberal a ‘Platonic ideal’ – it may not be fully realisable – but we should strive towards it and use it evaluate the real.

Thus economics becomes the measure of man, not man the measure of economics.

Of course there are those who do not worship the market. These anti-liberals include socialists and conservatives. This may seem a surprising alliance and we often forget that there used to be a very different kind of conservative (small c) philosophy – one that valued King, country, religion, the local and the small. But this kind of conservatism now has nothing to do with the UK’s Conservative party. The Conservative party is now the leading ‘liberal’ party and it is no longer in the business of ‘conserving’ anything at all – except perhaps the interests of the rich and the powerful.

The anti-liberal thinks of the market not as a space but as a force:

  • The financial market is a malevolent force selling fraudulent products or gambling with our savings.
  • The housing market is crazy bubble where our own greed drives up prices to the benefit only of those who can escape it at the right point.
  • Markets drive the growth of monopolies, big business and the industrialisation of almost everything – markets even seem to kill the possibility of markets.
Of course socialists and conservatives also will accept the need for markets. Only the most zealous want to control food production, everyday shopping or enterprise. But the market is, for them, not an ideal space, but a demon, to be controlled and harnessed. At best its energy provides other resources and so it can be taxed to support the things the anti-liberal really values.

Until the 1990s the battle between the liberal and the anti-liberal was largely fought on the margin of the sphere of public services. Markets were for private goods and services; when it came to public services it was the state that was in control. There was a disagreement about what should be nationalised and what should be left free – but no disagreement that nationalisation meant – ‘outside the market’.

But this has now changed radically. Today it is quite common to hear people talk about markets for public services: the social care market, the healthcare market, the market for social housing. However these markets rarely have any of the qualities that the liberal associates with markets. It is not people, making free decisions, who buy these services – it is commissioners or governments. Here the word ‘market’ takes on a third meaning – roughly – ‘the stuff we spend public money on’.

So we are left with three entirely different and contradictory meanings for the term market:

  1. A space within which free, contractual and efficient exchanges can take place – the idealised market
  2. A force which can redistribute, steal or exploit resources and power – the demonised market
  3. An array of objects, services or products, perhaps purchased by the state or its agent – the phoney market
Of course when a word is so used and abused it is easy to lose patience and to simply abandon the whole concept. What is the value of the word ‘market’ when it means three contradictory things?
However I would like to make the case for a fourth use of the term – I would like to make the case for the market as an ‘agora’ – a free, protected and public space where a whole range of human activities can be carried out. The agora is not primarily economic – it is simply the space the community needs to collaborate and to work together. Business can be done there, but it is not defined by business.
I was very struck a few years ago to find, on a visit to Athens, that the ancient agora had been marked off by sacred stones. The purpose of these stones was to protect the agora from the private – from the invasion of the sacred space by people’s desire to extend their houses or gardens. It was sacrilege to privatise the market – the market was public property – divinely blessed.
What is more the agora was not just for shopping. The agora was for every kind of public business. The school master taught his students; philosophers sat on the stoa, a shaded area on the edge of the agora (hence stoics); government officers worked and ran meetings; and temples operated. The agora is messy and human – lots of stuff goes on – out in the public square. The agora even housed the building for weights and measures – the system for checking on cheats – for ‘regulating the market’.
Interestingly the agora excluded the Acropolis (the centre of religious life), the assembly which met on the Pnyx (the centre of political power) and the Areopagus (the centre of justice). Each of these institutions was based on one of the hills looking down over the agora from on high.
Perhaps it is time to leave the idealised, demonised and phoney markets behind us. Perhaps it is time to work out how to protect and cherish real markets – the agora – those essential public arenas in which we do stuff together.

Today these place will not just be physical – they will also be virtual – but they are essential. Without the agora we cannot be fully human.