In No-one Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart Tom Slee takes on a big job - to challenge the view that free markets invariably make us better off.
He does this not by claiming that people are stupid, or by whining about unfairness, or by mumbo-jumbo calls for a new economic paradigm of the sort that pollute the Guardian. Instead, he applies orthodox economic principles in beautifully clear terms. For example:
The prisoner's dilemma causes a "race for status" in which each individual works harder than he'd like.
Co-ordination games create monopolies and superstars based upon little merit - everyone buys Microsoft not because it's best but because everyone else does.
Asymmetric information means that predictability trumps quality. This leads to diverse problems such as the unemployed being unable to price themselves into jobs; to old-boy networks; to the failure of quality local restaurants or art-house films.
Some things - a town of diverse small shops, or an unpolluted environment - just cannot be chosen by individuals. So the market cannot fulfill our preferences for them.
These failings - and Tom gives many more - provide an argument for government intervention, and for scepticism about whether we should introduce market forces into the public services.
There are, however, three issues Tom is vague about. One is: just how widespread or important are these market failures? For example, the market for used cars works better than Akerlof's theory of asymmetric information predicts. Is this just an isolated example of how markets work better in practice than in theory, or does it show that Tom is too pessimistic?
Second, the strongest case for free markets is not that they maximize well-being. It's that markets are a way of processing countless dispersed pieces of information on people's tastes and technologies. Sadly, Tom never addresses this Hayekian argument.
Third, market failure is only part of the story. There's also government failure. The choice we have is often not between badly functioning free markets and well-regulated markets, but between badly functioning free markets and badly regulated markets.
These, though, are quibbles, for our purposes. No-one Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart is a good counterweight to the "MarketThink" view that markets work perfectly. It's a valuable reminder that scepticism about markets can be compatible with clear thinking and economic literacy. And it's wholly accessible to non-economists too. Opponents of the market could do a lot worse than to use this as their inspiration.
Update: Tom replies (very generously) here.