Laissez-Faire Fiction

Who says free-market ideology rules the world?


Selling the Free Market: The Rhetoric of Economic Correctness, by James Arnt Aune, New York: Guilford Press, $23.95

Free marketeers of the world can rejoice: The intellectual and political battle over whether the state must or should intervene in the economy is over. Neither governments nor intellectuals still question or interfere with anyone's right to buy or sell on any mutually agreed terms; no one receives orders about how they must deal with, pay, hire, or fire employees; no one taxes, subsidizes, sets tariffs, or regulates international trade; no one openly posits the benefits of state control or planning.

Professional partisans, think-tankers, and journalists in the free-market cause should be especially proud, says James Arnt Aune in his new book, Selling the Free Market. In his telling, it wasn't irresistible historical and economic forces that raised the free market to its current unquestioned and total dominance. It was purely a victory for ideological cheerleading. "The triumph of free-market rhetoric does not require an elaborate theoretical explanation," writes Aune, an associate professor of speech communication at Pennsylvania State University. "The…triumph of the market comes down to money, public relations skills, and the mobilization of the energies of a dedicated cadre of libertarians."

To be fair to Aune, he doesn't really think that the free market, or its rhetoric, has in fact vanquished all opponents and that we now live in a laissez-faire utopia. Indeed, his book makes abundantly clear that he doesn't believe a word of his clearly nonsensical proposition. His blustery comments are simply rhetorical boilerplate of a specific sort (a sort Aune the rhetorician curiously leaves unanalyzed). Such grandiose statements are meant to convince a reader (or editor) that a book is vitally important. If he were brutally honest about the small number of people who actually take seriously the political philosophies of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick (among the thinkers dissected at length by Aune), his book would seem far less vital than it does by attacking an allegedly dominant mindset. No wonder Aune links Rand, Rothbard, and Nozick to Ronald Reagan–he was president, right?–and tells his readers that these free-market maniacs are intellectual colossi whose nefarious notions control those who control the levers of power.

Aune is hardly alone in inventing, or grossly exaggerating, the supposed dominance of free-market thinking. It's a common trope among leftists these days, with Thomas Frank, author of the recent One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, being perhaps the most prominent adherent of the notion that pure market ideology has conquered the world.

Would that it were so. While there is certainly more general agreement among policy makers that markets are efficient than there was 25 years ago, such a grudging recognition can hardly be confused with a total victory for capitalism, much less limited government or the free-market libertarianism that particularly seems to irk Aune. Tellingly, when Aune does a quick analysis of free-market arguments in three public policy fights, he picks ones in which they always lose: the minimum wage (it keeps going up), farm subsidies (they keep going out), and labor unions (still embroiled in government regulation).

In fact, as one plows through Aune, the market's "universal triumph" seems to keep shrinking: Aune stresses frequently that radical libertarianism–belief in a government restricted to national defense and running a court system, if even that–must perforce be anti-democratic since most people reject its tenets. He points out how one free-market academic, economist Lee J. Alston of the University of Illinois, got support from the Manhattan Institute, and "wonders why the academic world is unable to deliver these [free-market] arguments without a subsidy from a think tank funded by the very rich."

On Aune's own presentation, then, free-market libertarianism holds no sway in policy, with the public, or in the academy. (Incidentally, that bit of rhetorical nastiness about think tank funding of free-market academics deserves a retort in kind. The ad funderam is a rhetorically illegitimate argument under any circumstances. Ideas and analyses should stand or fall on their strength, not on who paid for them.)

With chapters devoted to Rand, Rothbard, Nozick, Charles Murray, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich, Aune promises a unique contribution to criticisms of the free market: an analysis that is not economic or ethical, but rhetorical–one that will elucidate the significance of how free-marketeers make their case. Aune takes a few, stumbling steps in this direction, but it is by no means the book's primary focus. Aune does not really want to understand those who love free markets; he wants to smear them.

Sometimes he does this subtly. For instance, when his subjects believe something that he doesn't understand, or when he can't be bothered explaining the obvious flaws he sees in their reasoning, he simply disparages the idea as "an article of faith" among free-marketeers. (The gold standard is thus dispatched.) More frequently, Aune is openly disrespectful toward both subject and reader.