advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

I believe in the free market

I’m a “serial entrepreneur” who’s a big believer in the power of the free market. Markets can do or fix anything, in my opinion. Look at some of the recent advances in smartphone technology – or medicine, for that matter. Weren’t all the COVID vaccines developed by private enterprise, and not in some government lab? I’d wager most of what’s wrong with today’s economy is due to too much government meddling, as opposed to not enough. Just give businesses the freedom to do what they need to do, and let the markets work their magic. Right? – Name withheld       

I appreciate your enthusiasm, but sadly – no.

The market—even a completely unfettered one, as you seem to pine for—cannot, and will never prove the omnipotent problem-solver you imagine it be.

Nor is the example you hold up as evidence a particularly compelling one. The COVID-19 vaccines from which we have all benefited came about in no small part due to public funding. Indeed, the virus’ genetic sequence—the starting point for all of these vaccines—was first published by an international consortium of scientists who benefited from the support of their respective governments.[1]

For one of the best examples of the impotence of the “free” market, though, you really needn’t look any further than your fingertips.

It’s the keyboard of your computer.

This arrangement of keys—known as QWERTY, owing to the placement of the first six letters on the top row—is clearly suboptimal. Yet for well over a century, it has resisted any and all efforts by the market to improve it.

First, it’s slow. Consider that most speed records for typing were set using a Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (or DSK), which positions the most commonly used letters in the English language in the “home row.” This makes them easier to access.[2]

Nor is the issue simply one of speed; QWERTY extracts a significant physical toll on users as well. In the U.S. alone, for instance, the total economic burden of untreated carpal tunnel syndrome (or CTS)—of which typing is a known contributor—is estimated to be between $2.7 to $4.8 billion annually.[3]

As Stephen Jay Gould explains in his essay, “The Panda’s Thumb of Technology,” the problem is that QWERTY came about for reasons which have long since outlived their utility. Back in the day, when manual typewriters first came in to being, keystrokes triggered a little hammer stroke which imprinted the letter on the page. If a typist was too quick, however, or the keys being struck were too close together, these mechanical hammers would jam.

So slowing typists down was precisely the point. The more frequently used letters were moved away from the home row (the “E”, for instance), or to a weaker finger (the “A”) – or both (the “O”). Yet as typewriters became more popular—and as the technology improved—manufacturers nevertheless realized that adapting their machines was far easier than convincing people to change their habits. And so, as Mr. Gould explains:

“…the industry settled on the wrong standard.”[4]

And we’ve been stuck with this awkward arrangement of keys ever since.[5]

Still, that’s not to say markets don’t have their place.

Under certain circumstances, and provided very specific conditions are met,[6] the free market can be enormously efficient in producing some optimal, albeit economic outcome. But in every situation, in any circumstance, no matter what your purpose?

Let’s just say I wouldn’t bet your paycheck on it.



[1] Cohen, John. “Chinese researchers reveal draft gene of virus implicated in Wuhan pneumonia outbreak.” Science, January 11, 2020.,the%20virus%20early%20this%20morning. Also: Rembaut, Andrew. “Phylogenic analysis of nCoV-2019 genomes.” March 6, 2020. (Both retrieved June 21, 2023).

[2] For an image of the DSK keyboard:

[3] Hubbard ZS, Law TY, Rosas S, Jernigan SC, Chim H. “Economic benefit of carpal tunnel release in the Medicare patient population.” Neurosurg Focus. May 2018; 44(5):E16. doi: 10.3171/2018.1.FOCUS17802. PMID: 29712517; PMCID: PMC6391978. (Retrieved June 21, 2023)

[4] S.J. Gould, “Panda’s Thumb of technology” in Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), p. 71.

[5] In his lovely essay, Gould describes another apparently pivotal moment in the establishment of QWERTY as the industry standard. In 1888, one of the early pioneers of the eight finger method (the practice of hitting keys with different fingers, as opposed to the less efficient “hunt and peck” approach) was challenged to demonstrate its superiority in a well–publicized race. The QWERTY-typist won handily (no pun intended), but in all likelihood because a couple other factors were also working to their advantage: (1) They had memorized the keyboard, and were thus able to type without looking (what we now referred to as “touch typing”), and (2) the challenger was using a keyboard arrangement that had no “shift”-action. Instead, there were separate keys for both upper- and lowercase-letters. (Gould, p. 70.)

[6] These precise conditions will be the subject of a future post.


  1. DS

    Another good example is Beta Max vs. VHS. The latter was widely known to be the better video tape format for various reasons, but VHS simply had better marketing and better luck and so became the industry standard, despite its insufficiencies. Some have made the same argument about the Apple MacOS vs. Microsoft Windows. So while capitalism certainly can drive innovation, there are certain aspects of it that cause said innovation to be driven the wrong way.

  2. Gaucho

    I’m not sure the QWERTY keyboard example directly addresses if free markets or governments are better equipped to “fix or do anything” but it looks like you’ll be elaborating more on the reader’s question in future columns. In the meantime, though, thank you for this detailed history of the mechanical keyboard, explained so clearly and succinctly. The blog post and footnotes were both interesting and a fun read!


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