America’s Toxic Romance With the Free Market

America’s Toxic Romance With the Free Market

America’s Toxic Romance With the Free Market

A conversation with Naomi Oreskes about her new book with Erik M. Conway, The Big Myth, and how market fundamentalists convinced Americans to loathe government.


The publication of Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change in 2010 helped transform how science news was reported in the media. The book persuaded reporters worldwide to become more skeptical of industry-sponsored “experts”—particularly on issues like global warming. Oreskes and Conway hope their latest collaboration, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market (Bloomsbury), will have a similar impact. I recently caught up with Oreskes, who teaches science history at Harvard, and is also the author of Why Trust Science, Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean, and Plate Tectonics An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. Long ago, in another life, Oreskes was a geologist. During our conversation, we discussed The Big Myth and how free-market economics became a dominant force in American public policy.

—Claudia Dreifus

Claudia Dreifus: How did the idea behind The Big Myth come to you?

Naomi Oreskes: After the success of Merchants of Doubt, Erik and I started thinking about doing another book together. At first, we thought we’d write about the technological solutions to climate change. But every time we started, what kept coming up was that a lack of the right technologies wasn’t the problem—most of the technologies we need already exist. But to get them in place, you need the right policies. That’s mostly a political question. That threw us back to something we’d been thinking about since we began researching Merchants of Doubt. In that book, the big question was “Why would intelligent people deny science?” In particular, why would famous scientists attack science to create doubt about the dangers of smoking, the thinning of the ozone layer, and climate change?

CD: And what did you conclude?

NO: That the scientists we called “the merchants of doubt” had an ideological framework of free market economics—what George Soros has called “market fundamentalism.” They believed that if the government became involved in economic questions, it would be the slippery slope to socialism. They thought that if the government told you not to smoke cigarettes, it would next tell you what job you could have, where you could live, and whether you could eat hamburgers. It wasn’t just the merchants of doubt who thought this way. The business media tends to take a consistently pro-market, anti-government, anti-regulatory stance. When we wrote The Merchants of Doubt, we noticed how much climate denial appeared in the financial press—even though climate change is objectively and immediately damaging to many businesses. The more we examined it, the more we recognized that we should focus on this.

Our basic question: Where did market fundamentalism come from? And how did it get such a strong foothold in America?

CD: Define market fundamentalism.

NO: It’s a quasi-religious belief that the best way to address our needs is to let markets do their thing and not to rely on government. It was best synthesized by Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address when he declared that “government is not the solution to our problem—government is the problem.”

CD: American public opinion was not always anti-government, was it?

NO: I don’t want to oversimplify. The relationship of the American people to our federal government is complicated. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were huge debates about whether the government had the right to ban child labor or protect workers in factories. Many people thought yes, but many business groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, argued no. However, the Great Depression led to a broad agreement that the government has a role to play, not just in protecting workers and consumers but also in protecting capitalism itself. Still, during the New Deal, many business leaders fought bitterly against federal involvement in the economy. They lost that debate. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, they reorganized and built a new network to try to undo the New Deal. We’ve documented how a network of conservative ideologues and business leaders built the market fundamentalist case and took it into the mainstream.

CD: How exactly did they do that?

NO: In part, by promoting an intellectual framework for anti-government ideas and then by engaging in the mass media with them. We look at three areas where they were active—the academy, mass culture, and politics, most importantly in promoting the political career of Ronald Reagan. Many people trace current anti-government attitudes to the Reagan presidency.

But Reagan is not the whole story. His career is one piece in a larger puzzle that took off in 1944, when Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom. That work posits that if you compromise economic freedom by allowing the government to become involved in economics—even to address an obvious ill like workplace injuries—you risk compromising political freedoms. In fact, you risk ending up in a dictatorship.

Hayek’s book became the foundational text of modern neoliberalism. An abridged version was featured in Reader’s Digest. A comic book edition was published and distributed at factories and schools. And Hayek himself was imported by a group of wealthy businessmen to take a chair at the University of Chicago.

They also hired a group of other right-wing intellectuals to help build a free-market program there. One was Milton Friedman. Another was Friedman’s brother-in-law, Aaron Director. And George Stigler, who published an edited version of The Wealth of Nations, which omits Adam Smith’s caveats about how you do need government, taxation, and regulation. That becomes the version that was used in a lot of schools around America to teach Adam Smith.

There was a lot of misrepresentation involved in selling these ideas.

CD: How did the market fundamentalists engage with the mass media?

NO: One thing they did was influence Hollywood and eventually television. Specifically, they encouraged producers to reject scripts that didn’t celebrate the glories of capitalism.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, many films were critical of big business, particularly banks. It’s a Wonderful Life is about corrupt banks and Jimmy Stewart standing up to corrupt local businessmen. The 1940 adaption of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath placed the blame for the dislocation of a millions of Americans during the Depression squarely on the shoulders of the 1 percent.

A few years after its release, Hollywood was censoring scripts like that one. In a talk to screenwriters in 1946, the president of the Motion Picture Association and former president of the Chamber of Commerce declared, “We’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath.”

Ayn Rand is also part of this story. Her work was promoted in Hollywood through a network of people who were also promoting the early work of Milton Friedman and George Stigler. An irony: While she was writing books promoting radical individualism, she was also writing censorship codes for Hollywood films.

CD: You have a whole chapter about Little House on the Prairie. Why?

NO: Because it’s emblematic of the kind of stories that were developed and promoted by the fundamentalists. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s publisher promoted the book series as the true life of a young girl growing up on the frontier. Actually, the stories weren’t written by Laura but rather by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a friend of Herbert Hoover and right-wing oil executive Howard Pew. Laura made rough notes and Rose crafted them into libertarian parables where this hard-working, successful family made it by their bootstraps.

But it wasn’t. The Wilder family had multiple failures. The truth is a sad story about a family repeatedly trying to make a go of it and repeatedly coming up against one difficulty after another. And what they did achieve would have been impossible without the Homestead Act, which was of course a government function, not to mention the federal government clearing Indigenous people off land that was given to white settlers.

CD: Is there a unifying theme to your books?

NO: Most of my work on the history of science has been animated by the questions, “How do scientists know what they know, and how do they have enough evidence to say that something is true?”

Since writing Merchants of Doubt, my interests have expanded beyond science to truth more broadly. How do we separate facts from fiction? How do we recognize propaganda? And how do we resist propaganda when we are the targets of it? That’s part of this book.

I am also interested in individual versus collective choice. Ayn Rand was right about one thing: We all make choices in life, and they are highly consequential. She was utterly wrong to think that people do or should make those choices without regard to others. I’m interested in how people rationalize choices like climate change denial or selling deadly products like tobacco when you know that it can and likely will kill.

CD: The Big Myth is likely to encounter a lot of resistance.

NO: I expect that. This idea that we should put all our faith in markets—it’s been the dominant ideology of American life for the last 50 years or more. And not just among Republicans. I had a moment of truth at an event at Harvard. I was on a panel on climate change with very prominent people, including several who’d served in the Obama administration. Every one of them—except for me—was talking about “markets” this, “markets” that. Afterwards a student said to me, “Oh my God… ‘markets, markets, markets!’”

And I thought, “We have been so saturated by the ideology of the market that we can’t even envision alternatives.” That’s when I knew I had to take this on.

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