I have interacted with quite a few opponents of the free market, both socialists and “traditionalists,” who have looked to the medieval guilds as a great example of how society can be organized without the alleged dog-eat-dog competition of the market. Under the guilds, competition was held in check. This means everyone was allowed to prosper, etc.

As with the other planks of the life-was-better-before-the-free-market school, this is fantasy. Sheilagh Ogilvie of Cambridge makes this abundantly clear in her new book Institutions and European Trade: Merchant Guilds, 1000-1800(Cambridge University Press). The guilds, Ogilvie finds, were simply “an effective way for the rich and powerful to increase their wealth, at the expense of outsiders, customers and society as a whole.” Far from promoting “social justice,” whatever that means, they “they were monopolies, rent-seeking institutions that continued to exist as long as they served to distribute a disproportionate share of economic goods to their members and their rulers.” As one reviewer puts it, “This book will make it impossible for anyone ever to argue again that merchant guilds were beneficial to society just because they produced benefits for their own members.”

It is not the case that capitalism “encourages greed,” though we hear this constantly from socialists and “traditionalists.” Capitalism is merely a series of exchanges, bounded by property and contract. “Greed” will be evident in any system — full-fledged socialism, medieval guildism, crony capitalism, whatever. The difference is that in those systems, people improve their position by harming others, and only by harming others. Under the market, where the consumer is king, one advances by pleasing his fellow man.

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