To write about something today, I decided that Free-Market Fundamentalism would be the topic of interest, since it’s probably my number one pet peeve in our society and political economy today.
A quick Google search didn’t take long at all. I entered the phrase “the market is always right”. Very quickly I was led to one particular article by a Mr. Fan Yang, that caught my attention, titled “The Market Is Always Right Even When It’s Wrong.” Here are the parts that I find most telling:
In this interpretation, you still must respect the market just because there is no other way….Therefore the market is like that boss who’s position precedes him or her. You might think your superiors are incompetent, but at the end of the day, if you don’t respect them, you are asking to get fired…..This is about attitude. If you start looking up for someone to blame, or looking out towards the market to blame, you are not doing yourself any good….When we trade our attitude towards the market should be that it is right, even when it is wrong.
This kind of propaganda would make the editors of the Soviet PRAVDA blush with jealousy. The whole point of the article is to condition the audience to accept the rule of the market system, without any criticism of its mechanical laws or its outcomes. Is good behavior being rewarded and bad behavior punished? Are people encouraged to be expressive and creative in their communication and social relationships? Are the needs of the most vulnerable members of society being met? Does the system serve the popular will of the majority, or the specialized will of a privileged minority? Or any number of other perfectly valid concerns for a somewhat enlightened adult to ask about.
Yet Mr. Yang’s advice is one of unquestioning acceptance toward the laws of the marketplace, no matter how much we may disagree with the results. Doesn’t sound like a very morally or spiritually healthy attitude to me! When you expand that attitude to include the capitalist market economic system as a whole, you essentially arrive at the modern conservative political conscience.
The whole conservative side of opinion in U.S. politics nowadays, ultimately seems to boil down to this kind of accept-the-market-without-complaint dogma. Efforts to redress the social inequalities of capitalism are derided as “socialist redistributionism” or even “Marxist.” And the people who openly question the market are subjected to ad hominem character attacks – “utopian,” “youthfully naive,” “childish attitude”, etc. It is exactly the same kind of behavioral psychology that seems to permeate elements of America’s religious fundamentalist crowd.
One interesting and pretty universal trait of fundamentalist thinkers, comes about whenever real-world evidence comes along that poses a direct and existential threat to a fundamentalist worldview. When this happens, the most commonplace reaction is to get angry and double down on one’s fundamentalist beliefs, in the psychological sense that it will somehow make inconvenient truths go away. So when capitalism experienced a near-total collapse in 2008 after 30 years of soaring inequality and plutocracy, the reaction of U.S. conservatives was to become more dogmatically pro-market and pro-capitalist. Rather than accept the need for systemic reform, they essentially “went full mental” on us and started screaming about welfare leeches, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, Barney Frank, Obama birth certificates, socialism, Marxism, class warfare, anti-Americanism, etc. And perfectly true to the “doubling down” form, they rejected the center-right monetarist views of Milton Friedman, for the more market fundamentalist views of Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises.
In short, that was how you ended up with a 2012 Vice Presidential candidate whose main political heroes come out of the novel Atlas Shrugged. It also explains how Rush Limbaugh found it charming to accuse the most powerful Christian authority figure in the world (Pope Francis) of Marxism. In other words, among many right-wingers capitalist market fundamentalism seems to have won out over even religious fundamentalism!
So that’s my take on why market-is-always-right attitudes are so fundamentally wrong. But it would be an equally bad attitude on my behalf, to endlessly complain about market fundamentalism without offering a positive alternative. So here, courtesy of economics professor Richard Wolff (rdwolff.com), is a wonderful example to set.
Last month, Professor Wolff was invited to appear on Bill Maher’s Real Time show. Maher was “generous” enough to give Wolff a round-trip ticket to the West Coast in the FIRST-CLASS section of the airliner. The jet had about 200 sardine-sized “economy” seats, but only 16 first-class seats that were remarkably more comfortable. Of course, since we have a market system for distributing those seats, Wolff only got a comfy seat because Maher was willing to pay the extra money on his behalf, to invite him out to the show in Los Angeles.
But Wolff used the experience as a teaching example in his criticism of markets. He points out that if the airline wanted to, it could distribute those 16 seats to passengers in any one of numerous alternative ways: give them to the elderly, to the sick, to overweight passengers, to military veterans, to first-time flyers, etc. Or use some kind of rotating lottery system to give everyone an eventual chance at riding first-class if they fly frequently. Or, rip out the first-class arrangements entirely and use the space in the plane to make the remaining 200 seats more roomy and comfortable! Indeed, the city of Paris, France wrestled with this very issue on its subway system in the 1960s; and the end result was that first-class cabins were completely abolished so that to this day, all seats on Parisian subways are equal.
There is NO magic law of nature that makes such an alternative allocation of United States airline services impossible. The only reason why we have very roomy seats for a privileged affluent minority, and sardine seats for everyone else, is that we blindly accept the market-based method of allocating those resources. The same could be said in many gentrified metropolitan centers today, where working-class residents are gradually getting squeezed out by rising apartment rents even as super-wealthy individuals, both foreign and domestic, buy up lots of apartments that are vacant for most of the year.
Any notion that the market system of allocation, or the capitalist system of production, are “right even when they are wrong,” is itself the real delusional attitude here. The evidence against the system keeps on piling up: wages stagnant for over 35 years; deregulation and a housing bubble leading to the 2008 crisis; an increasingly corporatized media system; corporatized entertainment system and the whole modern “celebrity-industrial complex”; the influence of the wealthy and big business over our political system, etc. Market-fundamentalist attitudes are guilty for allowing all of it to fester without criticism.
(You can hear Wolff’s full spiel on first-class airline accommodations here; just fast-forward to about 15:00 to hear it.)