The Big Myth: Fictions of Free Market Fundamentalism

A drawing of a hand holding a building before a crowd of people with the caption "Place Your Business Before More People."
American businesses definitely put their interests before people.

Myths are sacred stories to explain the world. They serve to inspire and teach. That does not make them true. Oreskes and Conway’s Big Myth is market fundamentalism; roughly the idea that markets always provide the best solutions to problems, that governments can only interfere with markets, and that market freedom is the same thing as “freedom” writ large. For fundamentalists, interfering with markets puts democracy itself at risk, an idea that rests on a fundamental error:

Market fundamentalism perpetuates a mistake in categories, conflating capitalism, which is an economic system, with democracy which is a political system. We think the properly framed choice is not capitalism versus tyranny; it is democracy versus tyranny, and well-regulated capitalism versus poorly regulated capitalism. (p. 14).

A very silly-looking marionette being pulled by a pair of hands pulling its strings.
If there is one thing free market fundamentalists despise it is the implication they are puppets of corporate interests.

Nearly all the founders of market fundamentalism after World War II benefited from support from very, very rich interests. This was not a “pay for play” situation because “Patronage doesn’t generally work that way. It’s rather that patrons find people whose views they like, then support and sustain them” (p. 262). While not neglecting the scholarly, and pseudo-scholarly ideologues of market fundamentalism, Oreskes and Conway draw our attention to the business interests paying the bills.

In his insider history of libertarianism, Brian Doherty lists Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Milton Friedman as “five people without whom there would have been no uniquely libertarian ideas or libertarian institutions of any popularity or impact in America in the second half of the twentieth century” (p. 8). All of these figures came onto the scene in the 1940s. By starting their story at the end of the 19th century, Oreskes and Conway show how the postwar “great thinkers” of market fundamentalism were planted in a soil well-tilled by fifty years of organized propaganda by American businesses. The major ideas of market fundamentalism were articulated before World War II by organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the National Electric Light Association (NELA), the National Industrial Information Council (NIIC), and the Liberty League. The only thing added by the Austrian economists, Hayek and Mises, for example, was “an intellectual legitimacy it previously had lacked (p. 127). The central message remained the same.

The themes of the Big Myth emerged in the early twentieth century: Freedom, which meant the freedom of contract to work as one pleased, and individual responsibility, which meant the federal government should not interfere with a people’s initiative and responsibility for themselves. Finally, the American Way of Life: governmental “intervention” into the free market would lead to socialism and central economic planning. (p. 34, Chapter 4). Or, as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) stated in 1939: “representative democracy, private enterprise, and civil and religious liberty” (Forward). This “Tripod of Liberty” was supplemented by the “indivisibility thesis” that democratic governance depended on an unregulated free market and that any attempt to control capitalism responsibly was to surrender to communism. By 1977, Ronald Reagan had replaced democracy and civil rights with “profit and property” (p. 307) perhaps because of the steady drumbeat from market fundamentalists that democracy was a danger to private property and business interests.

Market fundamentalism began in the early twentieth century as businesses fought against the passage of child labor laws (Chapter 1). NAM’s arguments against child labor laws were very familiar to anyone who has followed how market fundamentalists have fought climate change: child labor was not a widespread or serious problem; child labor was decreasing; it was the right of parents, not the government to decide if their child should work; child labor is a state, not a federal concern; and, finally, laws against child labor were creeping socialism, banning it was leading the country to a full-scale Bolshevism. Eventually, of course, the country adopted laws against child labor. There is a mountain of evidence that governmental well-enforced laws against child labor, coupled with compulsory schooling, and cash transfers to the poorest populations work to reduce child labor. Lest you think this battle is won, the market fundamentalists among us are still not sure laws against child labor are a great idea. It is a sign of how far we haven’t come that the week I read The Big Myth, Arkansas rolled back its child labor laws. The problem of child labor in the United States is increasing, so the Republican solution seems to be to make it legal again. Battles that were long over in the US public are never over for the market fundamentalists. The fight to restore child labor mirrors the libertarian continued battle against Title II of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in public accommodations (here).

Oreskes and Conway make clear that the Big Myth is built on a series of fictions. Some are clearly labeled as such and some are not.

Admitted Fictions

Before (and after) World War II the Big Myth was spread through fiction. One of the great strengths of the book is the recovery market fundamentalists’ mass media campaign to spread their message. NAM and other organizations sponsored all sorts of ways to tell the story of rugged Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, the evils of unionization, and the threat of governments taking over every aspect of American life. They flooded the media with the simple and simplistic message of market fundamentalism. While their descriptions of these efforts give a sense of these efforts, some of this stuff must be seen to be believed.

In the 1930s, NAM sponsored, Uncle Abner (p. 95-6), portraying a down-home old man complaining about the government and taxes and praising corporations While it is doubtful anyone on the board of NAM actually wore overalls, the cartoon spoke to Americans’ notions of being simple, hardworking folk:

Simple farmer portrayed with the caption: "Looks as if th' politicians are trying t'make corpses out o' corporations. Em Phipps thinks a proletariat is what you lasso steers with.

Then there was American Family Robinson, NAM’s radio program that was rejected by NBC for being a simple piece of anti-New Deal propaganda (p. 101). The Robinson family portrayed a hardworking couple defending the American way of life against the “foreign” and feminized socialism of the ne’er-do-well loafer, “Windy Bill.” Foreshadowing the fictional technique of Rand’s John Galt, the plot of each program was often interrupted by long speeches condemning the government and praising business owners(pp. 100-5):

Do you want films? The market fundamentalists were happy to supply them. Your Town: The Story of America “promoted the trope of heroic individualism (pp. 108-9):

In the cartoon, Make Mine Freedom, one sip of Dr. Utopia’s snake oil, “ISM” leads to “a Hayekian dystopia: property confiscation, state planning of everything, the crushing of dissent, [and] mass imprisonment” (pp. 229-30):

Of course, fiction is not always true to life. That is what makes it fiction, after all. It is not surprising therefore that the famed Little House books (and the mawkish TV show that followed them) by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, libertarian Rose Wilder Lane played fast and loose with the facts of Wilder’s childhood to promote an idealistic picture of individualism. As Oreskes and Conway note, “They would not let facts get in the way of their good story” (p. 173). Nor that hack novelist, Ayn Rand “had an astonishing disregard for facts and expertise” (p. 218). Unfortunately, even the feted scholars of market fundamentalism get no closer to facts than Lane and Rand did.

The Fictional Non-Fiction of Market Fundamentalism

Woman removing a smiling mask to reveal she is really scowling.
Beneath the smiling face of “freedom”

Oreskes and Conway note the obvious fact that American Family Robinson took its name from the famed Swiss Family Robinson stories about a shipwrecked family building a life together on a deserted island. That book, in turn, borrowed from The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe about a lone shipwreck victim. Something that Oreskes and Conway do not address is the prominent role the fictional Robinson Crusoe, was as a starting point in neoclassical economics including the founders of the Austrian school of free market fundamentalism, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Carl Menger:

Robinson Crusoe was the ideal representative of a basic premise of neoclassical economics—so much so that it was almost inevitable for him to be drafted into its service—the premise that there are universally valid economic laws. From the beginning, neoclassicals were convinced that for economics to become a “real” science, on a par with the natural sciences, especially physics, it had to be based on laws and principles that must not in any way be dependent on historical circumstances or social conditions. (p. 45)

Hence, Murray Rothbard began both his economic theory and his ethical theory with Robinson Crusoe. The only way to make market fundamentalism work is by ignoring the complexity of real societies and positing a complete idealization, aka a fiction: “neither in the literary nor in the real world are we able to find any evidence to support the Robinson Crusoe stories of neoclassical economics. They are simply not true” (p. 55). Nor are most of the stories told by market fundamentalists, even when presented as fact.

One useful way Oreskes and Conway unmask the myths of market fundamentalists is to show how they bowdlerized even their supposed heroes when those heroes strayed from the One True Faith. When faced with a text that suggested nuance, qualification, or suggestions that there was a role for government in capitalism, market fundamentalists rigorously excised such apostasy or revised the texts completely to reflect the interests of those paying for their wages.

Two pictures: The first is a military officer breaking golf clubs with the caption, "Your recreation is 'planned.' It is no coincidence that sports and amusements have been carefully 'planned' in all regimented nations. Once started, the 'pioneers' can't stop. The second picture shows someone executed by a firing squad. The caption reads, "Your disciplining is 'planned.' If you're fired from your job, it is apt to be by firing squad. What used to be an error has not become a crime against the state. Thus ends the road to serfdom!
According to Look Magazine, first, the socialists will make you do jumping jacks while you are forced to watch them break your golf clubs. YOUR GOLF CLUBS! Then they kill you. It is that simple.

Oreskes and Conway tell the well-known story of the butchering of Hayek’s Road to Freedom when condensed for Reader’s Digest. They note the condensed version contained many “dubious” historical claims and others that were “patently false” (p. 151). The Digest also simply changed Hayek’s words in order to make it appear that Hayek opposed any governmental involvement with the market, which he did not (p. 151). Worse still was the cartoon version that appeared in Look magazine which was more simplistic still. Personally, I think someone should have made a Tarzan cartoon of Road in which he simply grunts, “Markets good. Government bad,” since that is all the corporations needed from Hayek anyway. The inaccurate Reader’s Digest version of Road is still marketed and, despite having two forwards, an introduction, and a preface giving the background of the text and its publication the fact that it is an inaccurate representation of Hayek’s ideas is never mentioned.

George Stigler of the University of Chicago gave Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations the same treatment Reader’s Digest gave to Hayek: “Stigler expunged the passages where smith acknowledged the limits of that view [of the market] just as Reader’s Digest expunged the passages where Hayek qualified his views” (p. 245).

The radical rewriting of key texts to make them adhere to the Gospel of Market Fundamentalism was necessary because, “If market fundamentalism were a scientific theory, by the early 1960s it would have been viewed as refuted. The European experience disproved its central premise–that compromises to economic freedom would necessarily compromise political freedom” (p. 258). Against all experience and, for that matter, logic, Milton Friedman produced Capitalism and Freedom, which Oreskes and Conway correctly describe as “radical and incredible–which is to say, not credible” (p. 279) They tag the book as “a laundry list of assertion and opinion” masquerading as fact (p. 274). “When it comes to history,” they show, “Friedman exhibits a reckless disregard for fact, making one astonishingly erroneous claim after another” (p. 275). Sins of omission abound, such as ignoring the vast influence federal government sponsorship had on technological development. There are also straightforward falsehoods, such as Friedman’s claim that capitalism protected blacklisted Hollywood writers from harm, Columbus’s had no governmental sponsorship for his voyages and the role of “Great Men” in scientific discovery. Elsewhere on this blog, I characterized the methodology of Capitalism and Freedom as “making stuff up” (here, here, and here). I invite anyone who doubts that Capitalism and Freedom is as fictional as Atlas Shrugged to read the evisceration of the book in Chapter Ten of The Big Myth.


A large group of people bow down to

In the final sentence of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged her hero, the genocidal prick John Galt turns to the world and traces a dollar sign. Reaching the end of The Big Myth it is difficult to believe that market fundamentalism is any more complicated than that. If you are a tremendously rich person or corporation, you can find people who reduce all human relations and ethics simply to economic transactions. These people when then produce work that, in the final analysis, simply worships your wealth and justifies it as the product of “natural” economic laws. Everything produced by libertarians and much of today’s Republican party is in service of making the rich richer even if that means the “freedom” of children to do difficult and dangerous labor. To oppose that is to proclaim yourself a totalitarian who will break a rich guy’s golf clubs and then shoot him. Market fundamentalists dress that message up in a thousand different ways, but it is really no more complicated than that.

“Dishonesty and denial of evidence are perhaps the most consistent elements running through the story we have told here” concludes Oreskes and Conway (p 407). Market fundamentalists’ dishonesty and denial of evidence were apparent in their coordinated campaign to resist every public health measure designed to fight Covid-19. Putting their resistance in historical perspective: smallpox was one of the biggest killers in human history, estimates are that it killed nearly 300,000,000 people just in the first seven decades of the twentieth century, and untold more before that. It was eradicated because of the development of an effective vaccine and a massive, worldwide effort by governments to administer that vaccine and enforce quarantine and isolation requirements. All of these efforts were resisted by market fundamentalists. If we had listened to them then, we would still be plagued by smallpox.

And if we listen to them now, we will face a climate disaster of similar proportions. Climate change threatens our very existence and we have made little headway against it in since Oreskes and Conway published Merchants of Doubt in 2010. This failure can be laid at the feet of market fundamentalism. And market fundamentalism is a lie.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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