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  • Dan Connors

The Big Myth

The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway 2024

"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic." John F Kennedy.

In a confusing world, powerful myths can be irresistible. Especially if those myths make us feel better about ourselves, our past, and our future. But they are still myths. Sooner or later they are bound to blow up and be exposed, because reality doesn't care about which myths we hold dear.

There is one particular myth that has taken hold in the last century that has gripped the economies and politics of the United States and other nations- the myth of market fundamentalism. Market fundamentalism is the belief that unregulated markets will result in the best interests of society- unbridled capitalism and the pursuit of self-interest will lift up entire societies, and any restraints will hurt them.

For Naomi Oreskes, this unquestioned belief in the wisdom of the markets is The Big Myth that has led our nation astray. She writes about it in a new book of the same name. Oreskes is a Harvard professor and science historian, and was the author of another great book- The Merchants of Doubt that showed how big business sowed confusion about climate change to prevent actions to mitigate it.

For most of the mid-20th century, government was considered a public good and admired for how it handled the Great Depression and won World War 2. The Big Myth details all of the action that went on behind the scenes during this period that turned the tide radically by 1980, turning government from the results of a social contract to a faceless, oppressive villain.

Those on the right proposed that economic freedom was equated with religious freedom and democracy- the tripod of freedom. Without free, unregulated markets, America wasn't truly free. For a long time the memories of the depression, which resulted from unregulated stock markets, kept voters from turning away from the comforts of big government. But beginning in the 1970's that began to change.

Under President Jimmy Carter, airline and trucking deregulation was one of the first to go. Under Ronald Reagan, regulatory agencies like the EPA, OSHA, and IRS were gutted and industry insiders were put in charge. Bill Clinton had a hand in deregulating the financial sector, sowing the seeds for the financial crisis of 2008. At every step along the way the champions of market fundamentalism have been there to spin the myth in new ways and combat the ideas that government needs to step in when bad things happen.

Oreskes names many of the 20th century actors like NAM, the Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, Cato Institute, Ayn Rand, Heartland Institute, Milton Friedman, The Federalist Society, Heritage Society, and Koch Foundation that put huge amounts of money into lobbying, studies, and politicians who would fight for market freedom. Many of the names I had heard before, but there were some new ones. For instance, I had no idea that the stories of Little House on the Prairie were crafted by the libertarian daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder to appeal to right-wing fundamentalists who romanticized self-sufficiency in the wild west. (There is much debate about whether the stories are true or made up.) Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand relied on wealthy supporters to buy up her books, and then proved her hypocrisy by filing for Social and Medicare before she died.

Much of the Big Myth of market fundamentalism is magical thinking that has yet to be proven by economists. Countries in Europe have proven that strong governments can co-exist with religious freedom and democracy. In fact, democracy suffers currently from the oversized power that the rich have over our elections, and the market suffers from inefficiencies caused by over- consolidation and monopolies that stifle change and competition.

The 21st centuries is riddled with crises that haven't yet been solved by the marketplace- Covid, the opioid crisis, obesity, gun violence and mass shootings, unaffordability of housing, childcare, and education, income inequality, and of course climate change. The top 1% of Americans are shielded for the most part from these maladies, and they are now calling the shots while hiding behind the Big Myth. They are even trying to roll back the clock to the 18th century by pushing for child labor, a wrong that was righted over 100 years ago.

If history is any guide, communism, where government controls everything, has failed. Market fundamentalism, where government controls nothing, is also a failure, but it has strong backing from those it benefits. They have think tanks, unlimited funds, and plenty of propaganda to push their agendas. The best solutions lie in the middle, with government solving the big problems and businesses solving the smaller ones. There has to be some kind of "invisible hand" that looks out for the society at large, and not just the shareholders. This book points to government as the best option to solve our really big problems, and I have to agree- but only if the governments continue to be accountable through democracy and guardrails.

It's a delicate, complicated balance, but it's real. We can't afford to rely on myths anymore. The stakes are too high.

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