Belief in the Free Market


1909 painting The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan.

We saw last time that Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the Chicago School of Economics promoted the free market with fundamentalist zeal — an approach to economics that Joseph Stiglitz said was based on “religious belief.” Turns out that using religious-sounding language to talk about believing in capitalism isn’t as farfetched as it sounds on first hearing.

In the history of ideas, the “Disenchantment” refers to the idea that the Enlightenment ushered in an era when scientific knowledge would displace religious and philosophical belief. Reason, rationality, and objectivity would make the world less magical, spiritual, and subjective, and therefore “disenchanted.” You don’t need to know much history to know the Disenchantment never really played out — at least, certainly not in America.

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.

“Why are we like this?

“The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)[1]

Villanova professor Eugene McCarraher makes the case that capitalism stepped up to fill the belief void created by Disenchantment enthusiasts, and became the new world religion.

Mammon book“Perhaps the grandest tale of capitalist modernity is entitled ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Crystallised in the work of Max Weber but eloquently anticipated by Karl Marx, the story goes something like this: before the advent of capitalism, people believed that the world was enchanted, pervaded by mysterious, incalculable forces that ruled and animated the cosmos. Gods, spirits and other supernatural beings infused the material world, anchoring the most sublime and ultimate values in the ontological architecture of the Universe.

“In premodern Europe, Catholic Christianity epitomised enchantment in its sacramental cosmology and rituals, in which matter could serve as a conduit or mediator of God’s immeasurable grace. But as Calvinism, science and especially capitalism eroded this sacramental worldview, matter became nothing more than dumb, inert and manipulable stuff, disenchanted raw material open to the discovery of scientists, the mastery of technicians, and the exploitation of merchants and industrialists.

“Discredited in the course of enlightenment, the enchanted cosmos either withered into historical oblivion or went into the exile of private belief in liberal democracies…. With slight variations, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’ is the orthodox account of the birth and denouement of modernity, certified not only by secular intellectuals but by the religious intelligentsia as well.”

Mammon:  Far from representing rationality and logic, capitalism is modernity’s most beguiling and dangerous form of enchantment, Aeon Magazine (Oct. 22, 2019)

Prof. McCarraher develops his ideas further in his book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (2019). This is from the Amazon book blurb:

“If socialists and Wall Street bankers can agree on anything, it is the extreme rationalism of capital. At least since Max Weber, capitalism has been understood as part of the “disenchantment” of the world, stripping material objects and social relations of their mystery and sacredness. Ignoring the motive force of the spirit, capitalism rejects the awe-inspiring divine for the economics of supply and demand.

“Eugene McCarraher challenges this conventional view. Capitalism, he argues, is full of sacrament, whether or not it is acknowledged. Capitalist enchantment first flowered in the fields and factories of England and was brought to America by Puritans and evangelicals whose doctrine made ample room for industry and profit. Later, the corporation was mystically animated with human personhood, to preside over the Fordist endeavor to build a heavenly city of mechanized production and communion. By the twenty-first century, capitalism has become thoroughly enchanted by the neoliberal deification of ‘the market.’”

Economic theories — capitalism, Marxism, socialism — are ideologies:  they’re based on ideas that can’t be proven scientifically; they require belief. The reason thinkers like Kurt Andersen and Eugene McCarraher both use the term “dangerous” in connection with economic belief is because of the fundamentalist dynamics that invariably accompany ideological belief, secular or otherwise. We’ll look at that next time.

[1] The book is another case of American history as we never learned it. For the shorter version, see this Atlantic article.

Economic Fundamentalism

We saw last time that the goal of Chicago School free market economics was to promote “noncontaminated capitalism,” which in turn would generate societal economic utopia:

“The market, left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products — an Eden of plentiful employment, boundless creativity and zero inflation.”

The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017)

To the School’s free market advocates, these ideas were pure science:

“The starting premise is that the free market is a perfect scientific system, one in which individuals, acting on their own self-interested desires, create the maximum benefits for all. If follows ineluctably that if something is wrong with a free-market economy — high inflation or soaring unemployment — it has to be because the market is not truly free.”

The Shock Doctrine

Scientific method requires that theories be falsifiable:  you have to be able to objectively prove them wrong.

“The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data. In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

But how do you prove an economic theory based on “uncontaminated capitalism” in an economically contaminated world?

“The challenge for Friedman and his colleagues was not to prove that a real work market could live up to their rapturous imaginings…. Friedman could not point to any living economy that proved if all ‘distortions’ were stripped away, what would be left would be a society in perfect health and bounteous, since no country in the world met the criteria for perfect laissez-faire. Unable to test their theories in central banks and ministries of trade, Friedman and his colleagues had to settle for elaborate and ingenious mathematical equations and computer models.”

The Shock Doctrine

Mathematical equations and computer models aren’t the same as empirical data collected in the real (“contaminated”) world. If falsifiability is what separates scientific knowledge from belief-based ideology, then Friedman’s free market theory is the latter. Some scientists are worried that this spin on scientific theorizing has become too prevalent nowadays:

 “In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda – ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines. I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all…. For me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit.”

But Is It Science?

The Chicago School believed so ardently in the free market theory that its instructional approach took on the dynamics of belief-based indoctrination:

“Frank Knight, one of the founders of Chicago School economics, thought professors should ‘inculcate’ in their students the belief that economic belief is ‘a sacred feature of the system,’ not a debatable hypothesis.’”

The Shock Doctrine

This dynamic applies to every ideology that can’t be falsified — verified empirically. The ideology then becomes a fundamentalist belief system:

“Like all fundamentalist faiths, Chicago School economics is, for its true believers a closed loop. The Chicago solution is always the same:  a stricter and more complete application of the fundamentals.:

The Shock Doctrine

Journalist Chris Hedges describes the dynamics of “secular fundamentalism” in I Don’t Believe in Atheists. (The book’s title is too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”)

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others…. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical.”

Thus we have Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously saying, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself” — a statement entirely in keeping with the Mont Pelerin  Society’s idealistic Statement of Aims, which we looked at last time.

And thus we also have Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz countering with his thoughts about economics in a contaminated (“pathological”) world:

“The advocates of free markets in all their versions say that crises are rare events, though they have been happening with increasing frequency as we change the rules to reflect beliefs in perfect markets. I would argue that economists, like doctors, have much to learn from pathology. We see more clearly in these unusual events how the economy really functions. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, a peculiar doctrine came to be accepted, the so-called ‘neoclassical synthesis.’ It argued that once markets were restored to full employment, neoclassical principles would apply. The economy would be efficient. We should be clear: this was not a theorem but a religious belief.”

As we also saw last time, historical socialism and communism join free market capitalism in their fundamentalist zeal. In fact, some think that economics in general has become today’s dominant cultural form of belief-based thinking. More on that next time.

Economic Darwinism

social darwinism

The 19th Century’s Gilded Age of the Robber Barons came hot on the heels of The Origin of the Species. Little wonder that…

 “Soon, some sociologists and others were taking up words and ideas which Darwin had used to describe the biological world, and they were adopting them to their own ideas and theories about the human social world. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these Social Darwinists took up the language of evolution to frame an understanding of the growing gulf between the rich and the poor as well as the many differences between cultures all over the world.

“The explanation they arrived at was that businessmen and others who were economically and socially successful were so because they were biologically and socially “naturally” the fittest. Conversely, they reasoned that the poor were “naturally” weak and unfit and it would be an error to allow the weak of the species to continue to breed. They believed that the dictum “survival of the fittest” (a term coined not by Charles Darwin but by sociologist Herbert Spencer) meant that only the fittest should survive.”

Social Darwinism in the Gilded Age, Kahn Academy

The result was Social Darwinism:

“The term ‘social Darwinism’ refers to the deterministic philosophy of Englishman Herbert Spencer that applied, to humans and markets, Darwinian biological and evolutionary concepts of natural selection.

“Spencer offered his philosophical defense of individualism and laissez faire in Social Statics (1851). He coined the term “survival of the fittest” in Principles of Biology (1867), arguing that human progress resulted from the triumph of superior individuals and cultures over their inferior competitors; poverty was evidence of inferiority.

“Anything that interfered with the self-improvement of superior individuals or markets was to be resisted. What came to be called “social Darwinism” was used to argue for unrestrained economic competition and against aid to the unfit poor. The state was not to hinder the strong or assist the weak, interceding only to protect individual freedom and rights. “

Capitalism and Western Civilization: Social Darwinism, National Association of Scholars

Social Darwinism has since been widely discredited in academia, but Pulitzer-prize winning economics columnist and professor of public affairs Steven Pearlstein was dismayed to find it alive and well in current hyper-competitive, zero-sum economic policy, as revealed in numerous studies showing that certain genetically inherited traits play “an outsized role in determining economic success.” The list includes intelligence, personality, height, and good lucks, all of which statistically affect income and likelihood of being favorably judged on leadership qualities. Add parental nurturing practices — such as those of the new “Meritocrat” economic class we’ve been looking at — and “whether it’s by way of the genes we inherit or the circumstances in which we are raised, the parental lottery is more important than ever in determining economic outcomes.” It’s Time To Abandon The Cruelty Of Meritocracy, The Guardian (Oct. 13, 2018).

Pearlstein concludes that the luck of the genetic and nurturing draw “must always play a significant role in who achieves economic success” and that “we must also acknowledge that there is a point beyond which the consequences of the parental lottery can never be overcome.” Disconcerted by his own findings, Pearlstein calls for remedial action:

“No matter how hard we might try to make it otherwise, there is a fundamental and irreducible level of unfairness to market competition, one that undermines the moral legitimacy of market outcomes and provides a justification for taking reasonable steps to make them more equal.

“Because of heritability and upbringing, there can never be genuine equality of opportunity. More socialist countries in Europe and Asia have gone a long way toward equalizing access to healthcare, education, nutrition, childcare and even disposable income, and yet they have not come close to eliminating the transmission of family advantage or disadvantage. Surely we should do more along those lines to equalize opportunity in the United States?”

It’s Time to Abandon the Cruelty of Meritocracy

Economics Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz offers an alternative to economic Darwinism which he calls “progressive capitalism.”

“Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

“But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.”

Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron: We can save our broken economic system from itself, New York Times (April 19, 2019)

More next time.

Monopoly: The Ultimate in Upward Mobility


The Horatio Alger rags-to-riches ideal was born in the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons. A century and a half later, it remains an enduring icon of the American Dream and still makes for inspiring stump speeches.

If only it were true.

Truth is, something more powerful than pluck fueled the Robber Barons, and continues to fuel today’s Meristocrats and Robber Nerds. Yes, things like ingenuity, vision, determination, and hard work have had a lot to do with it, both historically and currently, but the essential element for creating mega-companies (sometimes whole new industries) and staggering personal wealth has been none other than government policy, which by definition favors selected economic activities over others.

A trio of distinguished economics and political science professors[1] provide one of the more provocative summaries of this economic reality in their book Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (2009). Harvard sociologist Steven Pinker described it this way: [2]

“The economists Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast argue that the most natural way for states to function, both in history and in many parts of the world today, is for elites to agree not to plunder and kill each other, in exchange for which they are awarded a fief, franchise, charter, monopoly, turf, or patronage network that allows them to control some sector of the economy and live off the rents (in the economist’s sense of income extracted from exclusive access to a resource).”


This practice is sometimes called the “Medici Cycle,” after the famous Florentines:

“In Towards a Political Theory of the Firm, [ Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business] theorizes that firms use their economic power to acquire political power. They then apply that political power to achieve greater economic gains, which in turn helps them acquire ever more political power. It’s a cycle Zingales likens to the Medici dynasty of 15th-century Florence, Italy. The Medicis leveraged their lending relationships with the Roman Catholic Church into considerable political influence in Renaissance Europe.”[3]

As an example, consider how Andrew Carnegie made his money:

“The competitive strategy of the steelmakers in 1875 was simple:  Collude and fix prices…. Carnegie was invited to join the newly formed Bessemer Steel Association. The association was a cartel, and in the days before antitrust laws, completely legal. Rather than compete tooth and nail for every bit of railroad business, it made far more sense for the steelmakers to establish quotas to limit the total supply in the market. By agreement, each firm was to produce its quota and sell into the market at agreed-upon prices.” [4]

The upside is that Medici Cycle government policies have supported all kinds of timely innovation and inventions, social and cultural trends, and quality of life improvements. The downside is what happens when monopolistic are allowed to go unchecked for too long. Researching this article, I came across several recent expressions of concern that this is happening on many levels in the current U.S. economy:

1)         In their book  The Captured Economy:  How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality (2017), Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles[5] describe their concern with  “regressive regulation” — monopoly-perpetuating policies — especially these four types:

  • “subsidies for financial institutions that lead to too much risk-taking in both borrowing and lending;
  • excessive monopoly privileges granted under copyright and patent law;
  • the protection of incumbent service providers under occupational licensing; and
  • artificial housing scarcity created by land-use regulations.”

2)         Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the Roosevelt Institute issued a 2015 report that lists numerous government policies that support or deter monopoly. You can download the full report here or read a Business Insider article published earlier this month that serves as a sort of executive summary of the report, and also brought it up to date:  Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz Says The US Has A Major Monopoly Problem.

3)         This recent article from The Institute For New Economic Thinking describes the derivative problem of “monopsony”:

“Center stage in the meeting of the Federal Research Bank of Kansas City’s annual symposium in Jackson, Wyoming this August was a discussion of the repercussions of having a small number of companies dominating the labor markets where they hire workers–what economists call ‘monopsony.’”

In a nutshell, the problem with monopsony is that, “When a small group of companies can dominate a labor market, wages—and workers—suffer.”

4)         Finally, state-supported monopoly is also evident in the current “rentier economy,” which, as the Steven Pinker quote above indicates, is the result of government policy that grants “exclusive access to a resource.” This is another instance of “regressive regulation.”

We’ll be looking more at the rentier economy in the weeks to come. But first, next week we’ll find out about a surprising twist in the original version of the Monopoly board game. In the meantime, you might enjoy my latest LinkedIn Pulse article The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.

[1] Douglass C. North is co-recipient of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. He is Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St Louis and Bartlett Burnap Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Barry R. Weingast is Ward C. Krebs Family Professor in the Department of Political Science and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. John Joseph Wallis is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

[2] As described in Enlightenment Now:  The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker (2018).

[3] From this post on the CFA Institute’s Enterprising Investor blog.

[4] From Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017). I’m not the only one who didn’t learn about this in my American history class. See this interview with the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

[5] The authors combine for one of the more unique economic collaborations I’ve come across in my research They’re a pair of political science professors at Johns Hopkins University who are also associated with the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank. Brink Lindsey is a libertarian, so no surprise there, but Steven M. Teles is a liberal, and together they offer an mix of perspectives that provides heartening evidence that not everyone of conflicting persuasions is so entirely polarized that they can’t tlk to each other or agree about anything.