Bryan Caplan  

The Sub-Utopianism of the Market

PRINT
Jefferson Against Newspapers... Modernity and the Gender Gap: ...

Remember Joel Waldfogel's The Tyranny of the Market? Waldfogel's thesis, as he explains in Slate: "For small groups with preferences outside the norm, the market often fails to deliver."

That sounds like bad news for me, because I'm a member of an extremely small group (membership=1), and my preferences are far outside the norm. Yet I'm regularly delighted by how well the market serves me. In fact, whenever I make a mental note of a product I want but can't get, it usually only takes a year or two for the market to see to my needs.

Thus, when John Woo's The Killer went off the market due to copyright problems, it took about a year for another company to reissue this Hong Kong classic. It took about five years for the The Tick to appear on DVD. I even signed a petition to get it released. But at last my pleas were answered.

Now just last week, the market answered my longest-standing unrequited demand. Nineteen years ago, I got Bernard Haitink's 1988 performance of Die Walküre for my high school graduation. Eight years later, when I had the funds to complete my Haitink Ring cycle, it was impossible to obtain. Even when the internet multiplied my options beyond my youthful imagination, no one was selling Haitink's Ring.

Until... last week, when I did another seemingly quixotic search on Amazon, and found that EMI had re-released the entire tetralogy (here, here, here, and here). To be honest, I'm so sentimental about this performance that I can't tell if it is a great recording. But I am sure that it seems great to me, and is infused with nostalgia.

If I were like Waldfogel, I guess I would harumph: "Nineteen years? It's about time!" But that's not me. I'm truly grateful that the market would dig up this obscure recording and mail it to me for under half the inflation-adjusted price I would have paid back in 1989. If that's your idea of "tyranny," what would count as Utopia?


Comments and Sharing





TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/813
The author at EclectEcon in a related article titled A Miracle of Market Forces? writes:
    I have moved about a thousand times. Each time I have bought new shower curtains and new shower-curtain rings. You know what? Every single time, the number of rings in a standard package has exactly matched the number of holes in the shower curtain. Am... [Tracked on April 2, 2008 12:27 AM]
COMMENTS (8 to date)
Patrick writes:

"That sounds like bad news for me, because I'm a member of an extremely small group (membership=1), and my preferences are far outside the norm. Yet I'm regularly delighted by how well the market serves me. In fact, whenever I make a mental note of a product I want but can't get, it usually only takes a year or two for the market to see to my needs."

Shocking as this might Bryan, perhaps this means you aren't as special as you think. If the market is really getting out products that you want within 1 year, then it seems intuitively obvious that you aren't a member of a group of 1. Rather, you are a member of a series of sub-groups with membership far > 1. Perhaps the intersection of all these subgroups leads to a group of 1. Or maybe not.

I think you've missed the mark with your commentary on this topic.

The set of people who want to buy Bernard Haitink's 1988 performance of Die Walküre may not equal one, but it's still pretty darn small. Markets may not service everyone down at the tip of the long tail, but I'm not sure who Waldfogel thinks would do a better job.

Rex writes:

Presumably, small groups with preferences outside the norm would be better served under socialism.

"Comrade! After the Revolution, you WILL like strawberries!"

ivan writes:

Tyranny of course can only come from the government. Not from spontaneous orders like the market. In Europe for instance there are such tyrannical things like shopping hours. If I want to buy a book on a sunday afternoon I can't because shops cannot open their doors. Now it of course isn't certain that there will be bookshops open on Sunday when there are no restrictions. Only one customer will probably not be enough to make a profit. But if there are the market will have found another niche, in a spontanous way, and my needs will be met, which isn't possible with legal restrictions. I think we call somethink like that evolution, not tyranny.

undergroundman writes:

Try being gluten-intolerant in 1988.

Bailey Norwood writes:

Please forgive this shameless self-promotion. I tried to get to Dr. Waldfogel to cite me in his book, since we both stumbled upon this theoretical result independently and simultaneously. He wouldn't, so for those economists researching this area, my paper and theoretical derivations were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization in 2006, under the title, "Less Choice is Better, Sometimes." Volume 4, Issue 1.

I don't focus on the tyranny of the market, but the tyranny of choice, but my model provides the same implications as Dr. Waldfogel.

8 writes:

The group of people who truly find the market fails to deliver heavily intersects with those who find reality unsatisfying.

Eli writes:

Bryan, I would go further. If you're in the tails of the distribution, collective choice is terrifying. At least with a market, there is always some incentive to serve niche groups. But if the median voter decides, she will pick something that appeals to her, which is by assumption not something that appeals to people in the tails.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top