The Big Myth Is Full of Recycled Anti-Capitalist Cheap Shots
A new entrant in the anti-neoliberalism genre fails to land any blows.
The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Bloomsbury, 576 pages, $35
Historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote that "the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well." A compelling case could be made that this affliction has taken hold among the highest ranks of Hofstadter's own profession. New academic "histories" now appear on a near-monthly basis, each blaming a variety of social ills on the conspiratorial machinations around a single idea: the free market.
Almost everything in this genre follows the same formula. When the American electorate fails to embrace the political priorities of an Ivy League humanities department, these disheartened authors cast about for a blameworthy culprit. They settle on "market fundamentalism" or "neoliberalism." The explanation then takes a paranoid turn, declaring the targeted theories a "manufactured myth" arising from the "inventions" of 20th century business interests, which allegedly hoodwinked voters into accepting the "magic" of the free market as a matter of received wisdom. Certain that they have found the source of their political obstacles, these historians then claim to uncover a "secret" history that has been hiding in plain sight. All eventually settle on a mundane conspiracy of business interests and libertarian economists, who allegedly derailed America from its progressive path by convincing people that markets work better than government at solving problems.
At some 550 pages, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us To Loathe Government and Love the Free Market is among the most loquacious entrants into this crowded literature. Harvard University's Naomi Oreskes and California Institute of Technology historian Erik Conway lay out their conspiracy theory with formulaic precision, but their book is atypical in one significant way. While most of the other works in the anti-neoliberalism genre manage at least to excavate some interesting archival findings about libertarian economists (before badly misinterpreting them), this book is remarkably light on original content.
The Big Myth's argument most closely resembles that of Cornell University historian Lawrence Glickman's 2019 book Free Enterprise: An American History, which advanced a nearly identical thesis wherein the concept of "free enterprise" allegedly arose as a myth in the service of anti–New Deal business interests. But The Big Myth also weaves in recent tracts by Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, Kim Phillips-Fein, Kevin Kruse, Quinn Slobodian, and Jane Mayer. Oreskes and Conway round out their spartan use of economic sources (their recounting of "market failure" theory makes heavier use of Pope Francis' encyclicals than any actual economics texts) with a dash of Thomas Piketty's dubious inequality empirics and a touch of Ha-Joon Chang's attempts to resurrect trade protectionism.
A reader with even casual awareness of these other authors will be left wondering why this same story needed yet another repackaged recitation. The result is a meandering journey through secondary sources and Wikipedia entries, presented as if they were tacked to a basement wall amid a disorderly web of yarn and dental floss in a progression that only its authors truly comprehend.
The Big Myth is structured in sequential vignettes about various themes and figures such as Ludwig von Mises, Leonard Read, Friedrich Hayek, Rose Wilder Lane, and Milton Friedman, all of whom are portrayed as either willing propagandists for big business or hapless dupes of the same. The authors expend almost no effort on understanding the arguments of the thinkers they set out to debunk.
A revealing example appears in the book's treatment of Leonard Read's 1958 essay "I, Pencil." Read's story is a fairly straightforward allegory for Adam Smith's famous concept of the "invisible hand," showing how complex social coordination arises from routine economic exchanges and signals in the absence of a centralized design. To Oreskes and Conway, however, the metaphor is literally the hand of God working from above to ensure the market system provides. As they put it, "God made the marketplace and the marketplace made the pencil; ergo God made the pencil."
This peculiar reading originates in a remark by Read's titular pencil: "Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me." While Read was a practicing Christian who used religious imagery in his writing, this quip was not an invocation of divine intervention to account for the assembly of pencils. It is an allusion to a famous line from Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees," a point that Read made obvious in a later printing that credited the saying to "a poet." Oreskes and Conway nonetheless carry their mistake to absurd lengths, sneering all the while that deviation from the progressive economic planner's impulse is a sign of superstitious philosophical Occasionalism about markets.
Interpretive peculiarities continue in their treatment of Ludwig von Mises' Socialism. After initially acknowledging that the book was written in German in 1922, Oreskes and Conway soon drift into anachronism by insinuating that it was intended as a critique of President Franklin Roosevelt. ("Mises's use of the term socialism was misleading," they contend, "because no credible American political leader in 1944 was advocating central planning.") They augment this ascription of prophecy with a sleight of hand, replacing the revolutionary Marxists of Mises' original commentaries with the comparatively benign Norman Thomas as their own preferred avatar of socialism. Like other texts in the anti-neoliberalism genre, The Big Myth removes 20th century free market authors from their historical context by hand-waving the Soviet Union out of existence and proceeding as if socialism means nothing more than a narrow swath of modern Scandinavian social democracies.
Such errors are frequently paired with another recurring theme: the authors' fundamental inability to approach their opponents with anything remotely resembling intellectual charity. The book is filled with gratuitous swipes, many of them comically ahistorical.
This usually means either a false accusation of racism or a disparaging attack on a target's qualifications. Mises receives both types of abuse. After dubbing him an "absolutist who sympathized with fascism," Oreskes and Conway launch into an extended attack on the Austrian economist's migration to the United States in 1940. In their telling, Mises was a relic of a bygone laissez faire ideology who struggled to find a respectable academic job until "dark money" funders created a succession of positions for him at New York University. It is doubtful they would pass similar judgment on the many academic refugees from Nazi Germany who hailed from the political left. Meanwhile, Mises' academic work in the United States gained higher honors than either Oreskes or Conway has ever achieved. By the decade's end, he had published three monographs with Yale University Press, including the decidedly anti-fascist book Omnipotent Government. Upon his retirement from teaching at age 88, Mises was named a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association.
Only a paragraph after branding Mises a fascist sympathizer, Oreskes and Conway shift into gushing praise for John Maynard Keynes' "The End of Laissez Faire." Keynes' lifelong support for eugenics extended to this famous essay, which called on governments to "pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers" of their citizenry. Interestingly, Keynes first delivered this message as a 1926 lecture at the University of Berlin. Mises, who attended as an academic observer, lambasted Keynes' irresponsible remarks out of concern that they could be interpreted as support for Nazi race theory. Keynes continued to flirt with fascist elements through at least 1936, when he penned a notoriously tone-deaf preface to the German edition of his book General Theory, announcing that he "expect[ed] less resistance from German, than from English, readers."
Oreskes and Conway's penchant for disparagement apparently extends only in the free market direction. They casually brand Milton Friedman a "racist extremist" and defender of segregation, but not for any actual defense of segregation. The authors simply disagree with his argument that markets were more effective tools for bringing about integration than government edicts.
Hofstadter wrote that the paranoic's accounts of his enemies "are on many counts the projection of the self." It is hard to resist a similar conclusion here. Oreskes and Conway label their opponents racists and eugenicists while lionizing progressive racists and eugenicists. They accuse Friedrich Hayek of eschewing "the essence of scholarship," which "is to look past the immediacies of time and place," while themselves constantly processing history through their modern partisan commitments. They accuse free market economists of venturing outside their scientific expertise while offering their own decidedly nonexpert opinions on everything from economic inequality to COVID-19.
The authors' discussion of the latter subject, which closes the book, is unintentionally comedic. Oreskes and Conway use the pandemic to contrast U.S. "market failure" with the alleged success of "countries that mounted a strong, coordinated response," China foremost among them. As their book went to press, China's centralized "zero-COVID" regime was collapsing into the same unfettered disease spread that Oreskes and Conway ascribe to free markets. But readers should not expect any self-interrogation from this pair.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Cheap Shots at Free Enterprise".