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Did Hayek Really Say that Free Markets Make Consumers Better Informed?

January 12, 2018 in Economics

By George Pickering

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By: George Pickering

It’s interesting how often the most memorable and thought-provoking parts of a given discussion are to be found in the tangents away from it.

Yesterday I was in a seminar on the history of economic thought in which we were supposed to be discussing Thorstein Veblen and the American Institutionalists, but toward the end of the session we got side-tracked into a discussion of the modern economy’s use of big data and the way companies gather information to provide targeted advertising. The lecturer somehow tied this into Hayek’s famous explanation of how a free price system efficiently conveys information to economic actors, dispersed and local information which could not possibly all be known to an economic central planner, and hence allows for those resources to be economized in a way that more rationally reflects their supply and demand.

Our lecturer, however, seemed to misunderstand the nature of Hayek’s argument and the sort of information to which he was referring. The lecturer sarcastically remarked something to the effect of “Do you think consumers are really well informed about the products they consume, thanks to the free market?” Surely, he seemed to be implying, the fact that most real-world consumers don’t have a full and deep intellectual understanding of every product they consume and where they come from – especially compared to the nefarious producers of those products – proves that Hayek was wrong. Thank goodness our modern understanding of asymmetrical information has superseded Hayek’s naive fantasy of consumers who are automatically kept fully informed by the magic of the market!

This is not only a misinterpretation of Hayek’s conclusions, but a misinterpretation which highlights an incorrect way of even approaching Hayek’s argument to begin with. Therefore I feel it might be worthwhile to briefly clarify what kind of information Hayek was actually talking about, in case anyone else reading this may have fallen prey to the same misunderstanding.

It is certainly true to say that consumers in a relatively free market tend to lack some information about the products they consume. Standing before the bread aisle in a supermarket, most consumers would not be able to tell you off the top of their heads the differences between the different brands of loaves, their ingredients, the companies which made them, and so forth. The same would be true for this sort of information for almost any other product and any other …read more

Source: MISES INSTITUTE

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