Review: The Tyranny of the Market, by Joel Waldfogel

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. 216 pp. $35.00 (cloth).


According to Joel Waldfogel, a professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School of Business, “a dominant strand of current thinking” regards markets as superior to government when it comes to providing consumers with what they want. When government undertakes the provision of goods, the products offered are limited to those that meet with the approval of the majority, whereas “[m]arkets are thought to avoid the tyranny of the majority because in markets each person can decide what she wants.” According to this dominant argument, he writes, “what’s available to me in markets depends only on my preferences, not on anyone else’s” (p. 2).

In his recent book, The Tyranny of the Market, Waldfogel challenges this assumption. When one considers what actually happens in free markets, when one considers the products available therein, says Waldfogel, “it’s clear that you can be better off in your capacity as a consumer of a particular product as more consumers share your preferences” (p. 4). In other words, you are more likely to get exactly what you want if your tastes are shared by the majority and less likely to get exactly what you want if your tastes differ from the majority. Thus, Waldfogel contends, when it comes to providing the goods that people want, “the market does not generally avoid the tyranny of the majority” any more than does a democratic political system that allocates goods (p. 6).

Waldfogel’s goal is to examine “how markets actually work” in order to allow policy makers and citizens to balance the shortcomings of markets against the shortcomings of government and “to determine an appropriate mix in each arena” (p. 36). Toward this end, he leads the reader through a series of examples in which there appears to be a breakdown in the market provision of goods. . . .

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