It seems that any discussion of politics ends up involving some sort of debate about economic systems. Since most atheists tend to identify themselves as liberal or libertarian, I thought that it'd be interesting to address these perspectives. I disagree with the liberal point of view because I believe that governments, much less powerful ones, can be very dangerous to people's freedoms. I also do not personally like the idea that someone who refuses to work will enjoy the fruits of labor of those who do. However, in this post I want to talk about the libertarian point of view. This is because while the liberal point of view is something that I don't personally like, the libertarian point of view is generally based upon the idea of a "free market", and this idea is one which I think is a complete fantasy.
So first off, I'd like to say to those that think a free market is the best way to run an economy that I don't necessarily disagree with you. You may be right. I haven't put too much thought into it, and the reason for this that I don't think free markets can exist in actuality, and so talking about how nice it would be is a waste of time. Additionally, slight deviations from a truly free market result in a situation which I think is hard to argue for since essentially all of the redeeming characteristics of a free market are lost.
The good thing about a free market economy is that products that are the best value succeed. If someone is charging too high of a price, someone else can come in and sell lower and still make a profit. The competition drives prices down and productivity up. However, this is not how markets work. When someone succeeds in business, they don't go back to square one. They're more wealthy now. This gives them an advantage which they can exploit to make their products, even if vastly inferior, succeed. If I'm wealthy I can simply drive my competitors out of business by operating at a loss, since I can sustain that while newcomers can't. Moreover, I have the money to advertise while others do not, and people might buy my inferior quality products for a higher price. This and other factors lead to the result that it's not the best quality products that succeed, but generally those who have previous wealth who succeed. Their previous success gives them current success, which gives them future success, and so on. Because the "game of capitalism" doesn't start anew, it overwhelmingly favors those whose are already wealthy. While some may or may not have a problem with this, the point is that this advantage destroys the level playing field and makes the market less competitive and thus not free.
Another criticism of a free market is the existence of externalities, which create costs to the consumer that are not reflected in the purchase price. Pollution is a good example of this. A company which has the lowest costs can sell for lower, thereby giving their product an advantage in the marketplace. They can lower costs by mishandling the pollutants that product production creates. The market rewards this sort of behavior with a competitive edge, yet the actual price of their products is much higher than those of a competitor who doesn't pollute. Now it's true that you could hold people responsible for learning about the companies they buy products from. While this would be very difficult to do, I'm not entirely against this argument, although I think it's doubtful that people would be able to adequately judge what the businesses were up to.
So to me, a free market is to economists what a massless string is to physicists. It's a nice idealization to help teach people basic concepts, but please don't build anything with it.