‘Free market fundamentalism?!? What do you mean by that? Isn’t that a loaded term?’
Well might you ask! And yes, it is a loaded term! I’m sure you’re aware that the phrase, as commonly used, implies a negative attitude towards the idea that strict adherence to free market principles is the best economic path for a society to follow. And it also implies that proponents of a strict laissez-faire economic approach possess a blind faith in the power of the market.
According to this view, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, operating only in a free market, is the only force or principle in the universe that will assure the best overall outcome for both personal liberty and the fair distribution of goods. But if you detect a certain…. skepticism on my part towards belief in that hypothesis, well, you’re right. I think that the term ‘free market fundamentalism’ accurately conveys the sense of an unshakable and all-encompassing belief in free market principles that I want to critique. Devotees of laissez-faire economics are commonly referred to as libertarians here in the US, but I’m not using that term here because it’s too broad for my purpose here: libertarianism also includes very liberal attitudes towards free speech rights, gun ownership, drug use, sex work, and so on. Here, I’m focusing on the economic issues only. In this essay, I’ll be using the acronym FMF to refer both to these common terms for strict free market philosophy (free market fundamentalism) and its proponents (free market fundamentalists), and speaking in general terms; of course, there are individual takes on the specifics of each issue, but I think my summaries of the arguments reflect the beliefs of the average FMF (free market fundamentalist).
Because all economic choices are based primarily on self-interest, so the FMF argument goes, no one will purposefully decide to act against their own self-interests. Even if it’s true that one’s choices result in satisfying only short-term self interests but are harmful over the long term, over time and in the aggregate, these choices with balance each other out in the marketplace. The tendency to make harmful choices will wane and eventually cease when the harm becomes apparent and other choices are observed to be better options. Self-interest will, therefore, inevitably cause people to make better economic decisions over time. There are many parallels between the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market and the biological force of natural selection, as Michael Shermer points out in his The Mind of the Market. (Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read it, and may never get around to it, but I’m familiar with many of the central arguments he makes in the book from his talks and interviews.)
A prime example of people making very harmful decisions on a large scale, based on short-sighted self interests put into practice in a free market, is the Dust Bowl disaster in 1930’s United States. Farmers, en masse, planted high-market-value crops that impoverished the soil and led to widespread erosion problems. These, combined with unusual weather conditions, caused a massive dust storm and drought that caused hundreds of thousands of farms to fail, thousands of people to die from dust pneumonia and other drought- and famine-related illnesses, and millions to become homeless. These people were hard-working and did not lack in that enterprising, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps work ethic lauded by the FMF. They also made a rational choice: to make a success of the farm, to achieve the American dream as well as to pay debts necessarily incurred by a self-starting farmer, which do you plant: a crop that will bring in more money, like wheat, or a far less profitable, more sustainable one? Of course, the one that brings in more money! And how much of your land do you plant: just part of it (leaving the rest covered by that prairie grass that kept the topsoil in place, or planted with crops that must be plowed under to repair the soil), or all of it? You can guess which rational, short-sighted self-interest will lead one to choose.
So most farmers chose to forgo the more prudent methods of farming and chose instead to lift themselves out of their current state of debt and poverty by planting wheat. And in the end, this strategy soon proved disastrous to almost everyone’s long-term self-interest, including many prudent farmers who had made wiser choices. This pattern of harmful economic behavior considered in the long term, based on short-sighted self-interest, is endemic in the human species. From casino gambling to trading in high-risk derivatives, from daily eating at fast-food restaurants to choosing ‘natural, alternative’ treatments for usually curable cancer, from choosing great-looking, gas-guzzling, highly polluting cars to instituting a system of health care coverage that’s highly profitable to a few but unobtainable to many, market choices abound that lead to disastrous results for life, health, and financial well-being.
So even though it’s true people sometimes and even often make self-destructive decisions due to short-sighted self-interest, the FMF might point out that the ‘invisible hand’ force of the free market will correct this tendency overall. After all, we haven’t had another Dust Bowl (well, not exactly), and even if we’ve gotten ourselves into similar messes for similar reasons, each episode serves to correct our tendencies to make those particular unwise decisions. So the corrective force of the free market even renders moot recent studies by behavioral economists that indicate that human beings usually make irrational but emotionally satisfying economic decisions. Irrational choices that only negatively effect the individual on a small scale may happen all the time, but in the long run, the tendency to make truly harmful economic decisions will be weeded out by the market equivalent of natural selection. The individual might choose irrationally, but the system overall is rational.
But human beings are not just economic actors who allow our choices to be judged and corrected in the long run by the impartial and heartless forces of nature. We are moral agents: we judge each other’s actions, as well as our own, according to a(n) intuitive and/or written code of conduct, and hold each person accountable, in real time, for acting in accordance with that code. We also consider the potential consequences of our actions and choose to act according to how morally acceptable they are. The code might be a universal one, such as that which requires all human beings to respect each other’s right to freely make decisions for themselves, or it might be a particular one, which specifically prevents a doctor from selling her patients’ private health information to an interested third party. These moral codes make it possible for human beings to live and thrive together in a society, attaining the maximum level of flourishing and personal liberty while limiting the opportunities of others to infringe on these. As moral agents, we are not only driven by such self-interested concerns as satiating our own hunger and thirst, obtaining and defending property, and so on. We are also driven by wider social instincts and concerns, such as helping those in danger or in need, earning the approval of our peers, and improving the future prospects of our children and friends. The latter is often partly driven by self-interest: so the saying goes, we sink or swim together. But much of our human moral character is quite selfless: throughout history (and even pre-history) and in every culture, human beings perform acts of kindness that provide no immediate or foreseeable benefit to ourselves.
Here’s where our roles as ‘rational’, self-interested economic actors and as moral agents conflict. The corrective force of the free market, like biological natural selection, is an amoral force, which doesn’t ‘care’ who flourishes and who does not, who suffers and who does not, who lives or who dies. Human beings, as moral agents, do care about these things, both on a rational and on an emotional level. (I am convinced that the sharp distinction between emotion and reason is artificial and largely misleading, but that’s a topic for another essay. Here, I’ll use this distinction as it’s colloquially used, as two ways of looking at things, one that’s instinctive and one that’s more considered.)
So should humans, as moral beings, leave the weeding out of bad economic decisions mostly or entirely up to the amoral force of the free market? Returning to the example of the bad decision to farm intensively and unsustainably: time and the evidence revealed that these farming practices were harmful and actually against one’s rational self-interest, though the opposite had initially appeared to most to be true. But the harm was revealed by the resulting death of thousands and the financial ruin of millions. Is it morally right, or even acceptable, to allow the chips to fall as they may, so that bad effects (or the morally neutral term ‘inefficiencies’ of economics) end up correcting the whole system on its own? Is this true for everything in the economic sphere, from polluting cars and industries to the health care system in the United States? The corrective force of the free market, like natural selection, needs inefficiencies to correct against, in order to work its magic. But, the moral agent objects, these ‘inefficiencies’ that die out are, all too often, human lives! And I hold that most moral agents, most morally committed human beings, consider death and the risk of death to human persons to be a morally unacceptable result of our choices. And not only do we, as moral, social beings, do and should hold ourselves accountable, we hold each other accountable.
The FMF might allow that this is true, but while the damage to individual finances, health, and life are regrettable, the corrective force of the free market is a better alternative to any other to ensure the greatest outcome to preserve human life and health. From Stalin and Mao’s communist regimes to Cuba’s socialist system, the FMF says, we’ve proved time and again that laissez-faire may sometimes look bad, but interference is almost always worse. Yet for every one of these cautionary tales of coercive top-down economic systems, there’s another tale of the horrors of laissez-faire: the Dust Bowl famine, the Industrial Revolution’s Manchester and other factory towns where the laboring poor were deformed and died from harsh working conditions and disease, child labor, the factory collapse in Bangladesh and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the exploded fertilizer plant in Texas whose owners ignored regulations…. who’s right?
Well, we can start with the observation that there’s a massive difference between a totalitarian regime ruled by a single unchecked despot who’s more often than not a deranged sociopath (a mentally healthy person is not one who desires unchecked power, I presume I’m in agreement with the public and with mental health professionals on this one) and a representative government whose powers are wisely limited by a bill of rights. I will betray my American prejudices (‘United-Statesian’ is just too clumsy an expression to use, so I apologize to Mexicans and Canadians, I’m not forgetting about you!) and proclaim that I’m a huge, HUGE fan of the checks-and-balances theory of government of Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Madison, in which several branches of government share power and so act as a check on any one person, branch of government, or set of interests holding too much power. But I’m not just a fan because I’m an American, I’m a fan because of how well it works. But it’s evident that a system of checks and balances not only works in government, it works marvelously in a multitude of other domains as well, from the worldwide scientific community to organizations to families to the inner and public life of each individual person. In all of these domains, the conflicting needs and interests are balanced against one another so that no one single interest or factor holds unchecked sway and potentially lead the whole into ruin for lack of a corrective mechanism. For example, the scientific community is rife with individuals who hold conflicting theories, who know disparate facts, and who wish to triumph over their colleagues by formulating the best theory or by cleverly debunking a seemingly established one. Over time, faulty theories are amended or are weeded out as science is ‘kept honest’, its theories constantly put to the test by the growing body of evidence.
The FMF focuses on the marketplace as the overarching system that’s subject to the corrective forces provided by the competition which animates the ‘invisible hand’. I think this is, at least partially, where the mistake lies. What corrects the marketplace itself when it comes to moral concerns? For example, in a free market, a worker’s wages are determined by how easy it is to replace them, according to the principle of supply and demand. As we’ve seen throughout history, the wages of relatively unskilled labor remains very low, since there’s usually a very large supply of it. The result, as it is in most of the world today, is that the people who pick the harvests on which our health and lives depend make very little money, and in fact can often hardly keep food on the table for themselves and their families. In contrast, a computer programmer, which requires a higher level of education and more technical skill, can make a very high salary developing video games or apps, a fun but relatively frivolous pursuit, which all too often encourages a sedentary lifestyle and poor attention span, negatively affecting health. (I’m not hating on video games, which bring joy and relaxation to many, though I have no interest in playing them myself; I’m making the point that they’re luxury items that are often addictive and misused). I think that for most people, other than the most extreme FMF, this is a regrettable result, at the very least. That’s because our morality includes a strong sense of justice and fairness, which indicates that people who do the most difficult and most beneficial jobs should be rewarded more than people who do the less difficult and less essential jobs.
It appears, then, that the market might better be regarded as one of the components of society that needs to be checked by and balanced with others. It needs, for one, to be checked by the essential practical needs of a community, such as a legal system, infrastructure, and defense, which is generally done by government (which, in turn, should be representative of and accountable to the people as a whole). But above all, it’s our moral commitments that should keep the market in its place (for an excellent explanation and defense of this, read Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets‘). The marketplace has proven to be an excellent and efficient institution for bringing goods to the people who want them, providing social mobility, and driving and funding technological innovation. It’s also been a very handy tool for oppressive and greedy institutions and individuals to exploit others, as earlier discussed, even being co-opted for these purposes by tyrannical regimes. I believe that it’s a mixed economy that can provide the best overall results for a society, that provides the most goods for the most people while ensuring that no-one (or as few as possible, realistically) goes without or is oppressed by the unscrupulous. By a mixed economy, I mean one that is free within limits, regulated wisely so as to prevent harm but not enough to stifle trade, and where those goods essential for life are not subject to the vagaries of market forces, but are provided by and for the people as a whole, again, through accountable and representative government. These essential goods, such as water, power, and health care are as essential as any infrastructure of roads or system of laws, and should be re-categorized and treated as such. It makes no more sense to me that a citizen, which enjoys the protections and other benefits of society, can complain about being ‘forced’ to pay taxes for health care that they may or may not use, while not complaining about being ‘forced’ to pay taxes to support the police force that may or may not actually have to catch a burglar in their home, or to pay for a murder trial where they have no relation to the murdered victim. That’s because societal goods, from health care to the criminal justice system, are not only based on the practical needs of individuals within a society. They arise from our moral concerns, which apply to everyone in a society. It’s no less acceptable, I submit, that we let people die because they could afford no health care provider to diagnose and treat their illnesses, than we let people die because they couldn’t pay for private security to protect themselves from armed burglars. That’s because our moral commitments to justice and the value we place on empathy demand that we look out for the welfare of the poor as well as the rich, and that we place on ourselves the public responsibility of relieving the suffering of everyone as best we can.
A general commitment to being a good citizen and a morally worthy human being should replace free market fundamentalism as the driving force behind one’s political and social views. I have no doubt that many who espouse FMF have, in fact, made this commitment and that’s what led to their beliefs. But clinging fiercely to the idea that there’s one and only one chief principle behind the betterment of society is no more defensible than believing there’s one and only one true theory in science, or one and only one branch of government that works. The facts of observation and of history reveal that the market is a force for ill as well as for good, and the morally committed, good citizen relies on the evidence, all of the evidence, to correct and sustain their beliefs and to inform their actions, and welcomes a system of checks and balances to keep them honest and on the right course.