Exploring the big myth of free-market neoliberalism

In 2010, the publication of “Merchants of Doubt” exposed how a small group of industry-backed scientists spread disinformation to undermine climate science. Now, the co-authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are back with a new book exploring “The Big Myth” of free-market neoliberalism, and why those merchants were able to find the success they did. The key question? “How did so many Americans come to have so much faith in markets and so little faith in government?” 

The Big Myth under their microscope is “free market fundamentalism,” the political position that The Market is inherently good and anything the government does to interfere with it is Bad. Be it regulations on exploding petrochemical trains or smoking or other labor laws, industry-funded groups like The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) used the exact same free market rhetoric it uses today to fight climate regulations. If free market fundamentalists got what they demanded, the authors surmise, “cigarettes could be sold to children, who would smoke them during their factory breaks.” 

The book is available today, and here’s a sneak peak of what’s in store for readers.  

When introducing “Milton Friedman, America’s most famous market fundamentalist,” the authors describe how he argued against voting because it was too easily gamed by special interests “and because in any case most voters were ignorant” (two strategies that free market fundamentalists would go on to cultivate). They quote a Friedman speech where he claims, “the economic market provides a greater degree of freedom than the political market.” Sure, it’s a banal platitude, but then the authors give the critical context: he said that in South Africa in 1976 “as he encouraged the citizens of that country not to fuss over apartheid, but to preserve and expand their market-based economy.” (Side note: what is it with these free market fundamentalists and downplaying apartheid? Oh, right! Racism. It’s the racism.) 

Conway and Oreskes are not shy about how free market fundamentalism has “little foundation in fact,” so industry “needed to find other ways to shore it up” (namely, “propaganda”). The authors also explain how “market fundamentalists protect their worldview by denying that climate change is real or asserting that somehow ‘The Market’ will fix it, despite all evidence to the contrary.” 

Because evidence was lacking, these free market fundies also built a cultural and religious propaganda apparatus. Sun Oil president and “leading figure in NAM” J. Howard Pew was the biggest donor to a Spiritual Mobilization campaign “to convince Christian clergy that unregulated capitalism was not merely compatible with Christian values but founded upon them.”

And then comes the mind-blower. Pew, the proto-Koch donor, “was also friends with libertarian journalist Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the beloved Little House on the Prairie series. Or ostensible author, for while millions of American readers adored these books – sold as the true story of Wilder’s childhood on the American frontier – the stories had in fact been crafted into parables of individual self-sufficiency and government superfluousness by her libertarian daughter.” 

The authors go on to describe how Ayn Rand’s success was driven largely by the decidedly non-free-market force of free-market-fundamentalist groups buying her books in bulk and giving them away for free to schools (a trick they’re still using) and how GE used Ronald Reagan to promote free market fundamentalism as an actor before he went on to do so as president. 

This is just a taste of what you can find in Oreskes’ and Conway’s new book, which will no doubt give all of us something to think about as right-wing disinfo outlets continue to push free-market propaganda.