Oreskes & Conway Take Down Market Capitalism In “The Big Myth”

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Historian and science writer Naomi Oreskes is no stranger to CleanTechnica readers. Way back in 2019, she penned a book called “Why Trust Science?” which described in exquisite detail how the fossil fuel industry has deliberately lied and cheated to prevent world leaders from taking human caused climate change seriously. Oreskes is professor of the History of Science at Harvard.

In 2010, she co-wrote a book with Erik Conway called “Merchants of Doubt” about how the industry has co-opted the tactics of Big Tobacco. Now Oreskes and Conway are back with a new book entitled “The Big Myth — How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market.

Oreskes tells The Guardian,

“In a way, the myth isn’t just one thing; it’s a set of interconnected concepts that together support this larger ideology of market fundamentalism. The first part of the myth is the notion of the free market, the idea that you could even meaningfully talk about ‘the free market’ as a thing that exists. In reality, people make markets. Markets are human institutions.

“So that leads to the second part of the myth, which is the idea that markets have wisdom, that the invisible hand guides us and that if we all do our own thing, our own self-interest will somehow lead to this productive, efficient and happy outcome. And therefore we should just trust markets, that the government distorts markets and interferes with the wisdom of the marketplace.

“Then the third part of the myth is, in a way, the most damaging — it’s the piece that really informed Merchants of Doubt. It’s this idea of the inextricable link between capitalism and economic freedom as a bulwark against totalitarianism.”

Conway adds, “We pick up the story with business leaders fighting against the regulation of child labor and workplace safety. We’ve all forgotten that there was a crisis of workplace accidents in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people. Business leaders in the United States were absolutely dead set against doing anything about these twin crises.”

Oddly enough, in a world where everything old is new again, Republican-controlled states all across America are rushing to roll back child labor restrictions at the behest of the business community, which is finding it hard to find workers in a post-pandemic, work from home world. All of the reasons for child labor laws 100 years ago are still valid today — things like not making kids too tired for school work, for instance, or not allowing youth with limited life skills and notoriously poor judgment to work around machinery that can cause grievous bodily harm. But Republicans care nothing for such “woke” concerns.

If a few kids lose a hand or a foot, they reason, that will teach then valuable life skills that will serve them well in the future, and besides, school force-feeds them a load of liberal crap they don’t need — things like 2+2=4 and that Michelangelo carved a statue with a penis. Not only that, kids are arguably safer at work instead of watching classmates being eviscerated by bullets from an assault rifle. Putting them to work spares them from all that drama.

Oreskes says,

“It’s pretty hard to come up with a good argument to defend the employment of children as young as two in textile mills, which we know happened. How do you defend something that’s clearly, on the surface, really quite appalling? Come up with some kind of argument that appeals to something that we do care about, that we value: freedom.

“We saw this in Merchants of Doubt, when we talked about the tobacco industry and how it mobilized this whole argument about the freedom to smoke, that you don’t want the government telling you what to do. We actually thought the tobacco industry invented that strategy. But they didn’t. What we show in this new book is that it goes back much further.”

oreskes and conway
Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

The Roots Of Libertarianism

“In the 20th century, one of the things the market fundamentalists did was rewrite US history to invent a story about how free enterprise was embedded into the very foundations of American society, economy and culture,” Oreskes says.

Then Conway picks up the narrative, saying they did this in the 1930s through a metaphor they came up with called the ‘Tripod of Freedom.’ That narrative was pushed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Electric Light Association, which included the Edison Electric Company, later known as General Electric. They claimed that the United States was founded on three essential principles that were like a tripod — if any were to be compromised, the whole structure would fall.

“The three pillars were representative democracy, the Bill of Rights and free enterprise. The third part was a complete invention because, actually, free enterprise appears nowhere in the constitution or in the Bill of Rights. Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence. They disguised propaganda as entertainment. It was not obviously partisan or political. That was the whole idea. Propagandists need a kernel of truth in order to be successful. The best lies are ones that are built on something people already believe.”

Oddly enough, the utility industry was a big part of creating this myth. “A key figure in this story is Ronald Reagan,” Oreskes says.

“Most Americans know that Reagan was an actor before he became a politician, but what they don’t know is how he affected that transition. Reagan’s career was not doing all that well, but he was still a Democrat. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild.

“But then he got this job with GE and the job had two parts — hosting General Electric Theater and promoting General Electric ideology through speeches. It’s pretty clear that during this period, his political outlook shifts to be very, very aligned with GE. So he comes out of GE with this new political ideology, quite different than what he had before he went in. Also critically, he comes out with a set of wealthy corporate backers who then finance his run for governor of California.”

What happened next became known as “voodoo economics” — supply-side theory largely created by the Chicago School of Economics. Conway says, “When Jimmy Carter becomes president, he brings into office a new generation of economists, many of whom have now been educated with the ideas of free markets that have been pushed into academia by the Chicago School of Economics. They begin shifting the way the government manages the economy. They are the regulators Carter brings into office, the first people we now associate with Reagan and ending with Bill Clinton, who finishes the job of deregulating banks in the late 1990s.”

oreskes and conway
Image credit: Government Accounting Office

Oreskes, Conway, & Milton Friedman

How did market fundamentalism happen? Oreskes and Conway quote Milton Friedman, who said one of the jobs of intellectuals is to be standing ready with ideas. You work on your ideas and you get laughed at, but one day the world is ready and then you’re there. When “stagflation” hit the American economy in the 1970s, the market fundamentalists were ready with an explanation. “Oh, the problem is too much government. The problem is big government. The problem is over-regulation.” That gained traction, the authors suggest, in part because it’s a simple explanation to a complex problem.

We can see Friedman’s advice at work in recent US history. When George W. Bush went to Washington, he brought with him a little framework for world domination, known simply as the Plan For A New American Century — a reactionary playbook that was just waiting for an opportunity to put it into action. Then shortly after September 11, 2001, a thing called the USA PATRIOT act magically appeared to invest the police and the government with sweeping new surveillance and arrest powers, all without benefit of Congressional or judicial oversight. So much for the “kinder, gentler America” that Bush Sr. promised.

That piece of legislation was an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” Does anyone seriously think someone created a 131-page piece of legislation with over 1000 sections and hustled it up to Capitol Hill just 8 days after 9/11? Did it spring full-blown from the brow of Dick Cheney? Probably not. The odds are it was sitting in a desk drawer somewhere just waiting for the right time to arrive. Milton Friedman must have been so proud to see others follow his advice.

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Oreskes, Conway, & Regulations

“I think most people still see regulation as a necessary evil — even liberals and progressives,” Oreskes says. “I would like to try to change that conversation, to make people think much more in terms of regulations as the rules of how markets operate.”

The free market as envisioned by NMA and NELA is akin to playing sports without referees — no one to call balls and strikes or decide when a player is out of bounds. In 2008, the financial sector took down the entire global economy because it had bought and paid for a loosening of the rules put in place after prior market meltdowns.

Chastened, Congress attempted to reinvigorate those restrictions, only to have the financial community chip away at them once again. And so, just as sure as night follows day, more high profile bank failures have taken place recently, and everyone is wringing their hands and wondering how such a thing can happen over and over again. As Oreskes and Conway point out, a claim that any reforms are “a step toward unfreedom is like claiming that road signs, stop lights, and speed limits are steps toward the elimination of driving.”

Personally, I would like to see how many free market types would set foot on a commercial aircraft that has not had its engines and airframe maintained in strict compliance with FAA guidelines. The airlines could make a lot more money if they weren’t hemmed in by all those silly rules. Of course, some people would die, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, can you? And while we’re at it, let save the taxpayers a boatload of money and get rid of all those air traffic controllers who sit around all day in the air conditioned cubicles playing video games. What a waste of taxpayer money that is!

The Takeaway

Finally, Conway tells The Guardian, “The question is, who are the rules set up to benefit the most? Business leaders want the rules of the road to benefit them, and we’re arguing that no, the rules of the market should benefit the majority of the citizenry, not just the business leaders.”

What does any of this have to do with clean tech? Simply this. The tech industry was founded on the principle that people should be allowed to run around and break things. Rules are for losers. But as many CleanTechinca readers have said recently in their comments, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of an increasingly small minority is not in the best interests of the human community as a whole.

This free market claptrap is the predicate for the oil companies lying to the public for the past 40 years or so. It has allowed those corporations to put their own greed ahead of the needs of the general public. By exposing the “big myth,” the authors hope to change how business is done, which in turn could change how the world responds to the gathering climate crisis.

The book should be recommended reading in every high school in America — especially in so-called red states. Freedom does not mean being free to destroy the Earth’s environment, and yet that is precisely what the toxic libertarianism promoted by corporations would have us believe.

Oreskes and Conway are historians who specialize in science. History doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It teaches us about the mistakes we as humans have made in the past so we can avoid them in the future. By exposing the history of libertarianism, the authors can help us choose a path forward that respects the needs of all members of human society, not just a favored few.

That’s important, because those favored few are determined to drive us forward toward a world too hot for most of us to survive, solely to increase their personal wealth. If we know what their game is, we can defend ourselves against their sinister plot. The truth can set us free — if we let it.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5543 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley