The Big Myth: Fictions of Free Market Fundamentalism


Cover of The Big Myth: How American Business Taught us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

According to the American Economic Association:

Economics can be defined in a few different ways. It’s the study of scarcity, the study of how people use resources and respond to incentives, or the study of decision-making. It often involves topics like wealth and finance, but it’s not all about money. Economics is a broad discipline that helps us understand historical trends, interpret today’s headlines, and make predictions about the coming years.

If that’s how professional economists define their field, a question should arise in your mind: what does economics have to do with human freedom? To understand human freedom, other fields of study seem to be more relevant: philosophy, sociology, political science, or even history. In their new book, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market (read an excerpt here), tell us why Americans tend to think that “freedom” is best addressed by economics. As the title indicates, it is the result of over a century of mythmaking funded by businesses, corporations, and very, very wealthy people. It is the Big Myth.*

The book is a critique of the extensive public relations campaign that “market fundamentalists” have been conducting in the United States for over a century. Oreskes and Conway have nothing against markets and give credit to them where credit is due. The difference between them and the “market fundamentalists” they critique is that:

Contemporary conservatives, libertarians, and market fundamentalists are not really defending capitalism, even if they think they are. They are defending a certain idea of capitalism, a vision of growth and innovation by unfettered markets where government just gets out of the way. (p. 13)

The idea of the perfect, unfettered market, however, existed, “precisely never. There has never been a time in human history when markets met these conditions, and there is no reason to think that such conditions could ever exist” (p. 418). Nonetheless, the utopian vision of a “free market” has been invoked time and time again against any kind of governmental oversight or regulation of businesses.

Market fundamentalists can only advocate for unfettered markets by ignoring the role government has always played in capitalism. For example, free market fundamentalists make much of what they call the “Great Enrichment:” the great growth in wealth beginning in the 19th century. I’ve pointed out in this space before how slavery, not libertarian “freedom” was responsible for a great deal of that wealth (see here and here). Oreskes and Conway point out that much of the geographic expansion that fed the “Great Enrichment” came from the displacement of American Indians (pp. 172-85, 226). The idea that European settlers could simply take the land of indigenous Americans comes from John Locke’s idea of “property rights” and has been endorsed recently by conservative pundit, Jonah Goldberg. No market fundamentalist idea is every truly dead.

Oreskes and Conway also document the rise of industrial technology, the “American System of Manufactures” which allowed interchangeable parts in machinery through the development of machine tools. This technological revolution allowed for the mass production of goods on a scale never before possible. The revolution in industry resulted from the federal government’s investment in the problem: “It took nearly fifty years–what would have been an inconceivable period of research and development for a private corporation in the nineteenth century (or today for that matter)–but once it was achieved, it revolutionized manufacturing” (p. 124). When confronted with well-documented histories of governmental involvement with the creation of wealth and advancing capitalism, market fundamentalists like Milton Friedman, just ignore it, or worse, lie about it (p. 275). The market fundamentalists create a fictional past to suit their ideological predispositions and, more importantly, the ideological demands of those paying them.

Details on page two.

*Full disclosure: Erik Conway and I are graduates from the same PhD program and had the same advisor. He’s a friend. Oreskes and Conway flattered me with a brief mention in the acknowledgments for a tiny bit of help finding some hard-to-locate publications. I have admired and taught their previous book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming as well as the related documentary. Additionally, I have used Oreskes’s book, Why Trust Science? as a text in my “Science and Public Policy” class since its release a few years ago.

Hayek Versus Hayek


It turns out I have more thoughts on Andrew Koppelman’s new book, Burning Down the House. In my previous post, I dealt with Hayek and racism. Here I focus on Koppeman’s claim that a sharp distinction can be drawn between the crude and radical libertarianism of Murray Rothbard and the sophisticated and moderate libertarian libertarianism of F.A. Hayek. It was Rothbard’s fanatical opposition to any version of the welfare state or regulatory control of businesses that libertarians are embracing today, Koppelman claims. By abandoning such absolutist claims and embracing Hayekian balanced approach to governance, libertarianism can be a useful guide for our future. Koppelman is correct that a clear distinction can be drawn between Rothbard and Hayek but errs in thinking Hayekian thought is not responsible for the libertarian embrace of current policies that Koppelman deplores. I show that Koppelman misunderstands the argumentative strategies employed by today’s libertarians to oppose reasonable regulations on business and the expansion of the welfare state. These strategies are better described as Hayek’s than Rothbard’s. Also, I show that Koppelman’s main intellectual opponent is Hayek himself, who consistently opposed policies that Koppelman claims Hayek’s logic should endorse.

To begin, I will explore Hayek’s argumentative strategy for evaluating a given governmental action.

Frontpiece of Cato's Letters, Vol. 1
The Cato Institute, named after Cato’s Letters was founded by Rothbard and Koch in 1977

For Hayek, Koppelman argues, state action could be justified through cost/benefit analysis: does the proposed action’s benefits outweigh the cost? If so, the action is justified, if not the action is not justified. But that description, which reduces Hayek to the kind of everyday cost/benefit analysis that every policymaker presumably employs in some form and misses what makes a particular calculation “Hayekian.”

What makes a cost-benefit analysis Hayekian is that Hayek demanded that state intervention in the economy shouldered very strong probative obligations “Hayek’s view did not entail minimum government. It rather imposed strict conditions on intervention in the economy” p. 15). For Hayek, the market enjoyed a strong presumption of efficiency and, in order to justify State action, the government should shoulder a quite heavy burden of proof to show that the benefits of taking action outweigh the costs imposed. The state may act in “market failure can be shown.” (p. 177). Koppelman argues that Hayek, read properly, allowed for reasonable regulation of economic activity in order to protect the public good and a welfare state provided those measures met very stringent evidentiary requirements showing them to provide net benefits to society. For Hayek, that could include things like a guaranteed minimum income to provide for basic human needs. These reasonable measures are viewed as anti-libertarian by today’s libertarian right, who are committed to Rothbard’s dogmatic views of private property which forbids such measures. For Rothbardian thinkers, taxation is always theft, state action is always coercive, and the market will always provide for human needs better than the government–views Hayek rejected according to Koppelman. Koppelman concludes, “Hayek’s reasoning thus yields a moderate, pro-capitalism, pro-free trade philosophy that embraces the modern regulatory and welfare state so long as it does its job properly’ (p. 71).

Well, now. Before we all go jumping into bed together, let’s ask ourselves a basic question: do Hayek’s views provide the guidance necessary to actually govern in the way that Koppelman claims it did in the past and should in the future? If the question of state action turns on how much evidence is required to overcome the presumption the market enjoys, for Hayekians, that means the evidence needs to be very good and there needs to be a lot of it. But who makes the determination that the evidence is sufficient? How is the evidence gathered and weighted? What counts as a “cost” or a “benefit?” Those are the kind of questions that need answers before a political theory can guide policy.

More importantly, since there is a strong presumption against state action in Hayek’s formulation, those opposing regulations or a welfare state do not need to “win” any particular argument about such actions. They merely need to set the burden of proof high enough such that it is difficult, or perhaps impossible to meet, as Richard Gaskins has shown. Schematically, the argument looks like this:

  • Make the opposing advocate shoulder the burden of proof.
  • Set the standards for meeting the burden of proof very high.
  • Claim that the opposing advocate has not met the burden of proof either by claiming the available evidence does not meet the burden of proof OR that the available evidence does shows the costs outweigh the benefits.

In fact, this is precisely the strategy employed by the“neo-Hayekians” who are homed at “intellectually serious policy-wonk institutions such as George Mason University and the Cato Institute” (p. 110) to forestall the kind of “modern regulatory and welfare state” Koppelman claims they should be embracing.

Go on to Page Two

F.A. Hayek and the False Promise of a Racially Just Libertarianism


The cover of Andrew Koppelman's book, Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed

In his new book, Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed, Andrew Koppelman, the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University attempts to rescue libertarianism from itself by centering the work of Freidrich A. Hayek, one of the most distinguished economists of the twentieth century. Toward the end of the book, Koppelman discusses Barry Goldwater “who admired and sometimes quoted Hayek…After he had the [1964 Republican] nomination [for the Presidency], Goldwater (himself no racist) voted against the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds: ‘the freedom to associate means the same thing as the freedom not to associate.'” (p. 188). On the following page, he writes, “Reagan succeeded in shifting American politics–and American understandings of liberty, in Hayekian direction. He used the word freedom in his speeches more than any president before or since” (p, 189). Nestled between those two sentences is this one: “Libertarianism in all the forms we have examined is firmly opposed to racism. We have seen no trace of it in any of the arguments we have surveyed” (p. 189). That Koppelman cannot see any “trace of racism” in Goldwater parroting standard segregationist lines to oppose the Civil Rights Act or in Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” environmental racism, and generally throttling any antiracism in the Republican party underscores the flaws of his analysis of the history of libertarian ideology and racism.

In some respects Koppelman tells a story that parallels Matt Zwolinksi & John Tomasi’s The Individualists. Both books tell a story of libertarian ideas that, somehow, lost their way. What was once a philosophy that championed freedom for all became, or is in danger of becoming, a philosophy of reaction and repression. For Zwolinski & Tomasi it was a reactionary turn the movement took in the second half of the twentieth century. For Koppelman, the problem is similar: it is that libertarianism has misunderstood its own founding ideas; for him, libertarians are too entranced by the views of Ayn Rand and Murray N. Rothbard instead of F.A. Hayek, libertarianism’s true founder because “American libertarianism began with Hayek” (p. 7).

One reason Koppelman argues that Hayek is properly viewed as the founder of libertarianism is that Koppelman believes that nearly every viable option in today’s political landscape opposes the planned economy that Hayek feared. “Excerpt for a politically impossible fringe, the American left aims for a generous welfare state–more generous than the present one–in the context of capitalism” (p. 4-5). Yes, even Bernie Sanders (p. 5, 35). According to Koppelman, “The ideas of Hayek, valuing markets because they promise a better life for everyone are today commonplace in the Democratic Party” (p. 13). For Koppelman, the enemies of libertarianism come from the right, not the left. Libertarian ideas are threatened by Republican embrace of “Christian fundamentalism and Trumpian racist, xenophobic nationalism” (p. 12).The question then becomes, does Hayekian libertarianism give Koppelman the tools he needs to combat racism? To answer that question, I will examine how Hayek fits into the history of the relationship between libertarian thought and racist thought. Despite attempts at “revisionist” history from twenty-first century libertarians, the libertarian tradition they’ve inherited was either an active participant in building a racist society or passive observers of it. Looking to libertarian ideology to somehow be an active warrior against racism at this late date might be possible, but to do so libertarians need to honestly evaluate their own past.

Page Two will explore these difficulties.

Another Distorted History of Libertarianism and Racial Justice


Some religious traditions, most famously, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, practice the Baptism of the Dead. In this practice, the Church baptizes a living person who is acting as a proxy for a deceased person in order to ensure that that deceased person gains entry into Heaven. Often this practice has met with vigorous objections from leaders of other faiths who find the practice disrespectful to their own faiths.

When libertarians write the history of their ideology in matters of race they tend toward a similar practice. Historical figures are torn from their contexts and declared “libertarians” in order to, metaphorically, get libertarians into the Kingdom of Free Market Heaven. Often the historical figures are a bizarre hodgepodge of folks, usually chosen more for their appealing views on racial justice than on their advocacy of views normally thought of as the centerpieces of libertarian thought such as the non-aggression principle, capitalism, property rights, or strict individualism. The most egregious example of libertarians trying retroactively baptize a historical figure as one of their own is when they try to claim that Martin Luther King, Jr., noted socialist, was a libertarian (examples: here, here, and here).

In their new book The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi know better than to try to retroactively enroll MLK as a libertarian, indeed, they point out that many libertarians object to MLK’s ideas (pp. 220, 358). These are real scholars publishing with Princeton University Press, not some blogger on the internet like some people around here. On the other hand, Zwolinski and Tomasi cite a whole lot of bloggers in their chapter on “Racial Justice and Individualism” which is my focus, so perhaps the playing field is more even than I thought.

Zwolinski and Tomasi seem well aware of philosopher Stephen Toulmin’s adage that “Definitions are like belts. The shorter they are, the more elastic they need to be. A short belt reveals nothing about its wearer: by stretching it can be made to fit almost anybody…Yet the hope of hitting on some definition which is at one and the same time satisfactory and brief dies hard” (p. 18). They opt for “satisfactory” rather than “brief” and devote their first chapter to answering the question, “What is Libertarianism?” and draw careful distinctions among “classical liberals,” “neoliberalism,” and “Strict libertarians.” That last category is itself comprised of deontic libertarians, who are guided entirely by inflexible principles and consequentialist libertarians who “evaluates the consequences not of specific policies but of general principles and retains its commitment to those principles even if they (seem to) fail in particular instances” (p. 16). As an aside: keep an eye on that parenthetical “seem to,” it will become important later. Zwolinski & Tomasi often label failures of libertarianism, no matter how big or well documented as seemings. Libertarianism can only “seem” to fail, not actually fail.

Their summary of libertarianism gives us this:

Libertarianism is best understood as a cluster concept. We see libertarianism as a distinctive combination of six key commitments: property rights, negative liberty, individualism, free markets, a skepticism of authority, and a belief in the explanatory and normative significance of spontaneous order. (p. 6)

It is the jockeying among those various elements that make libertarianism so slippery a concept: just which element should be weighted the most, for example? It is also these differing commitments that seem to open the door to reactionary libertarianism. In Zwolinski & Tomasi’s history, libertarianism grew out of an absolute commitment to individualism and negative liberty first embaced by certain 19th century figures’ opposition to slavery. In the twentieth century libertarianism took a reactionary turn in defense of the status quo, and is now embroiled in controversy over which path the “Liberty Movement” will take here in the 21st century: radical or reactionary? (Spoiler alert: they don’t tell you).

I will focus on Chapter 7, “Racial Justice and Individualism” since that is the chapter that is most relevant to my work and expertise. Buckle up and go to page 2.