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Free market, an unregulated system of economic exchange, in which taxes, quality controls, quotas, tariffs, and other forms of centralized economic interventions by government either do not exist or are minimal. As the free market represents a benchmark that does not actually exist, modern societies can only approach or approximate this ideal of efficient resource allocation and can be described along a spectrum ranging from low to high amounts of regulation.
Many economists consider resource allocation in a free market to be Pareto-efficient, where no one can be made better off without making other individuals worse off, given certain conditions (like the absence of externalities, or side effects, and of informational asymmetries, or disparities of knowledge, among others). Moreover, according to this theory, through the invisible-hand mechanism of self-regulating behaviour, society benefits by having self-interested actors make free economic decisions that benefit themselves. Some ethicists have argued that the efficiency of free markets depends on several moral parameters as scope conditions, such as fair play, prudence, self-restraint, competition among equal parties, and cooperation.
Critics of the free market system tend to argue that certain market failures require government intervention. First, prices may not fully reflect the costs or benefits of certain goods or services, especially costs to the environment. Public goods are often underinvested or exploited to the detriment of others or future generations, unless such exploitation is prohibited through government regulation (see tragedy of the commons). Second, a free market may tempt competitors to collude, which makes antitrust legislation necessary. Antitrust and similar regulations are especially necessary in cases where certain market actors, such as companies, have acquired enormous market power. Third, transaction costs may mean that some exchanges are best performed in a hierarchy rather than in spot markets (where payment and delivery are made on the spot). Most importantly, Pareto-optimal resource allocation in a free market may violate principles of distributive justice and fairness and may thus necessitate some government action.
In response to these critiques, economists Ronald Coase, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich A. Hayek, among others, have argued for the robustness of markets because they can adjust to or internalize supposed market failures in many situations. For instance, many goods traditionally conceptualized as public goods requiring government provision have been shown to be open to free market contracting. Libertarians are strong defenders of the idea that a system of free markets provides the best economic system.
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