TCS Daily

MLK, the Marketplace, and a Legacy of Freedom

By Dwight R. Lee - January 19, 2004 12:00 AM

While commemorating the contributions of Martin Luther King, we shouldn't overlook the connection between freedom and the economic progress possible only in a market economy. The expansion in freedom brought about by the civil rights movement under King's inspiring leadership receives far too little credit for improving the prospects and prosperity of all Americans. And our free-market economy receives far too little credit for helping move us toward King's dream of freedom for all our citizens.

The more freedom people have, the better markets work. Market prices convey information on what people most desire as consumers and how they can best serve others as producers. This market communication is distorted when some are denied opportunities to shop where they choose, get the education they need, and take jobs for which they are qualified. Markets depend on freedom.

Freedom also depends on markets. We can tolerate the freedom of others when market prices are informing and motivating them to pursue their own interests in ways that promote the general interest. No one argues that this "invisible hand" of the market works perfectly, or that it eliminates restrictions on freedom motivated by senseless prejudice. If it did, we would not have needed the civil rights movement, and few people would have heard of Martin Luther King.

But neither can sensible people deny that freedom is best served in economies that rely on markets. Does any one really believe it is accidental that the freedoms we take for granted in market economies are routinely suppressed, often brutally, in economies relying on state ownership and socialist planning? Not just minorities are denied basic freedoms under socialistic regimes. Except for the politically privileged few, freedoms to travel, get the type of education one chooses, pick one's occupation, shop where one wants, express political opinions, read what one wants, and worship as one chooses don't exist.

Market economies disperse authority, making it less likely that, as happens under socialism, power will become concentrated in the hands of a few who use it to suppress freedom and perpetuate their control. Markets also make it easy to extend and protect freedom by making it a force for general economic prosperity. This explains why Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement enriched America economically as well as morally.

The civil rights movement expanded freedom for African Americans who had long been denied opportunities taken for granted by most of us, opportunities to pursue their goals and dreams by making the fullest use of their talents and energies. This expansion of freedom deserves national recognition because it benefits us all far more than most of us realize.

We all recognize the value of having more opportunity for ourselves. What is often ignored is that in a market economy it is not just our freedom that enriches us, but the freedom of others as well. In fact, most benefits we receive from expanding freedoms are not from those we take advantage of ourselves, but from those taken advantage of by others. When African Americans -- or anyone else -- take advantage of freedom to get the education, work in the jobs, and start the businesses that do the most to improve their own lives, they are also improving the lives of the rest of us.

It's not just additional wealth that we realize from expanding opportunities for minorities, although more wealth is always welcome. But more important, the opportunities we each have to realize our full potential as human beings increase in market economies as the same opportunities are increased for others. We are all diminished, economically as well as morally, when some are denied those opportunities.

We may disagree on some of the legislative and policy details that have evolved from the civil rights movement, but we should all agree that King's legacy both enhances and is enhanced by the tremendous benefits we all realize from freedom and markets.

Dwight R. Lee is Ramsey Professor of Free Enterprise, Terry College of Business, University of Georgia.


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