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What's the appropriate polemical strategy against "free market"?

Yves is right; the phrase would make Goebbels proud. What phrase should we use instead?

IIRC from ECONned, neo-liberal propagandists drove out laissez faire with "free market." And if you think about it, that ideology that "free market" implies has also rotted the health care debate; and the whole "nudge" thing is neo-liberalism gussied up with new techniques to manipulate consumerism with data-driven and observational techniques that enable more efficient rent collection.

But what's an appropriate polemical strategy? I'm thinking there need to be two tasks: One is to debunk the term; the second, and harder, is to create a new one that will begin to usurp the same semantic space.

1. Free market can be debunked with shudder quotes -- the so-called "free market" (then throw in a link to Simon Johnson on oligarchy).

2. As for the new term... Damned if I know. But it really is the issue, isn't it? After all, we do have Elizabeth Warren proclaiming that "I love capitalism!" with the implication that what we're experiencing has nothing to do with capitalism. But we also have the whole experience of the 20th century, that to my mind shows that all the posited alternatives to capitalism were worse. And then we have a great number of local experiments, especially centering on Maslow's hierarchy stuff like food and shelter, that are indeed markets.... And then what do we tell the 50-year-old flipping burgers to pay off their debt? Join the food co-op, they've got argula?

The "free market" is a corrosive ideology; but we need not only to invent a term, but a vision....

No votes yet


madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

"Voodoo economics?" We should find something to disparage the "free-market" ideology, something catchy like that. I like Naomi Klein's "disaster capitalism."

I sometimes refer to liberal economics as "trickle-up" economics. The money resides with the bottom 98% and trickles up to the top 2%.

Submitted by gob on

Maybe these will stimulate better ones.

For the same semantic space: fee market, mob market, con-man's market, compulsory market, rigged market

For the kind of market we'd like: fair market

three wickets's picture
Submitted by three wickets on

Fair market is a good principle, like fair trade versus free trade. But as usual, the financial engineers have appropriated the term and made it theirs. Fair market value in the equity trading community means current price adjusted for speculative futures and options contracts. A sibling term used in financial accounting is mark-to-market value which the Sarbanes Oxley Act tried to impose on financial markets after Enron as a definition of current saleable market value of a product or asset rather than its book value. In the past year, the SEC and FASB have loosened the mark-to-market rules to allow banks to "resolve" their toxic assets.

I like the terms Non Toxic Market or Ethical Market, as a counterpoint to the concept of Moral Hazard.

Submitted by Anne on

That's really what the term "free-market" connotes, right? Call it what it is.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

and I'm not sure we'd want to. That unfortunately extends to phrases that play off "free". Crony Capitalism is the kind of in-place phrase we have. I'm fond of "Bilko Bazaar" but doubt that it would catch on. Big Boys' Bazaar (I like the bizarre implications of this economic and political system)? Monopoly market?

Submitted by lambert on

... is the price of liberty." Meaning, you've got to regulate the market to keep it free (and cultural factors are part of this; there's a larger system that is not market-based, and the key to "making markets be markets" (as the New Deal 2.0 folks say) is that larger context...

"FAIL market"... Since market failure is all about us (and indeed, FAIL is sold, when banksters do the kind of crap that Yves talks about...)

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

I haven't read Yves' book, but I was struck by the comments talking about people being social creatures and economics is inherently social as well. Is economics a tool for the people or are people a tool (or merely a variable) for economics? In other words, is "economics" a means to an end, or an end in itself? All the discussion so far seems to treat "economics" as an end, not a means. We seem to be treating economics much like we treat gravity, at least in our rhetoric. This leads me to something simple: "Markets ain't gravity". They are human constructions that would not exist without us, whereas gravity would exist if people all died off. We're told we can't mess with the markets. Why the hell not if they are our tools?

This goes along with some of my posts on society formation and the fundamental principles of liberalism.

scoutt's picture
Submitted by scoutt on

Markets will always seek out the best opportunities for making money. Isn't that the very core principle of Free Markets? If there is no downside to committing fraud, of course people will game the system. They're actually doing what they are supposed to do - find opportunities.
Free Markets naturally lead to fraud.

Submitted by gmanedit on

Great alliteration (fraud/free), short and punchy, and it's true!

The very term free market is a fraud, since it couldn't exist without government grants and restrictions of all sorts.

votermom's picture
Submitted by votermom on

I was going to suggest Crony Capitalist Cartels but it doesn't hold a candle to fraud markets.

Kick Baucus to the curb's picture
Submitted by Kick Baucus to ... on

"to let the owners of industry and business fix the rules of competition, the conditions of labor, etc., as the please, without government regulation..."

Which we tried and it was thoroughly discredited. It became obvious that regulated capitalism was necessary to protect society from the worst impulses of private profit at public expense. The most obvious defect in laissez faire was the creation of monopolies.

So the Robber Baron era laissez faire became The Free Market. Previous history proved the market is not perfect, but "free" was the more deceptive term. Most people think freedom is synonymous with the definition above - free to do as we please. But that is not what freedom is. A free-for-all is anarchy. Freedom means we can do as we please up until we infringe on someone else's right to do as they please. The freedom to do as we please is then mediated by society and the rule of law. We have as much freedom as possible, without allowing the most aggressive to create a living hell for everyone else.

So the term "free" has been redefined dishonestly, and I would challenge its use on that level.

We want an economic system that works for people, not one that takes the fruits of our labor. That taking comes from two directions: from government taking to redistribute to others (the one the Rs worry about), and secondly from those who can gain an undue advantage taking what people have earned (the one we worry about). I would put the axis as between a useful market, a utility for the greater good, and a predatory market that lets corporations "fix the rules" to society's detriment.

That's my answer to the two parts. When someone says the free market, a say there is no such thing. Healthcare was a wonderful example, as we know the tea party position of protecting the current system as "freedom" was absurd. I also liked the idea of advancing universal healthcare as a public utility, and I kind of like the term "useful market" or a market that works for us, a sense of putting the order back so that we are the ones served, not the ones in service to an irrational belief in an Invisible Hand.

dr sardonicus's picture
Submitted by dr sardonicus on

The economic elite have done a masterful job of convincing the American people that free markets equal freedom; that's why the phrase resonates so well with the public.

As for a replacement term, nothing comes to mind at the moment, although I would like to see more people emphasizing that the only place that pure free markets exist is in economics textbooks.

beowulf's picture
Submitted by beowulf on

I've linked to a pdf of Frank Luntz's 28 page memo, "The Language of Healthcare". Interesting stuff, the whole memo is worth reading (I noticed he didn't mention Medicare at all).

"Free market healthcare" didn't poll very well (p. 14), but what comes across as worse, and thus the answer to lambert's question, is "profit-driven. (p. 7) In contrast, everybody seems to like the idea of "patient-centered healthcare" (p.14)

Luntz had some interesting things to say about economic arguments. He must have snickered every time "the public option" was pitches as providing consumers with free market competition to private insurance companies:

We suggest ratcheting up the rhetoric against insurance companies to almost the same degree as you do against Washington bureaucracy. Call the Democratic plan a “bailout for the insurance industry” – both because it is, and because it will build lasting credibility by going after the two things the American people hate most: Washington bureaucracy and insurer greed. (p. 7)

Nobody is asking for “private healthcare” or “free market healthcare.” There is no demand for more “competition.” Those are economic terms. They want patient-centered healthcare – healthcare that’s individualized, personalized and humanized. So if you want to demonstrate to Americans that you understand and empathize, stop bringing in economic terminology into a debate about healthcare. (p.14)

STOP talking about “consumers” and START talking about “human beings.” The term consumer reeks of the economic arguments about competition, free markets, and private insurance companies – none of which gets you anywhere with persuadables. Talking about “patients”… or better still “human beings” … casts the whole discussion in the humanized approach we strongly advocate.
(p. 19)

sisterkenney's picture
Submitted by sisterkenney on

that's a bumpersticker I've had for 2 years from CNOC/NA/NNU. It's simple, to the point, addresses the main problem and publicizes the nursing standpoint. What more can you ask for?

Submitted by libbyliberal on

..some great author on one of the fdl book salons when I was an active citizen of fdl told me one Saturday NOT to keep calling it "free market" and then he said this excellent name for it. And it has disappeared down the memory hole, along with the name of the person who told me. And last night I tried to search old fdl salons I had been at to find that phrasing. So I will keep looking... but I liked what he said. Aggggggghhhhh. It was simple and straightforward. Darn.

Tony Wikrent's picture
Submitted by Tony Wikrent on

about what "free markets" and "free trade" were really all about: providing a justification for the horror and genocide of the slave trade conducted by the British East India Co., and later, for the opium trade and wars which destroyed India and China.

This is what I tried to do by posting this on Real Economics:

Adam Smith was a prostitute for slave traders

When it comes to the deities of the economics profession in America, Adam Smith is right up there with mammon. So, not surprisingly, you have to turn to the Philippines and to India to learn the full, sordid history of what "free trade" and "free markets" was really all about:

Adam Smith: ‘Intellectual Prostitute’ For British East India & Slave Traders

Smith-Ricardian ‘Free Trade’ Justified Slave Trade

Amitav Ghosh on "Opium and Empire"

When these historical embarrassments are pointed out to the "free marketeers" of today, they really freak out, like in this article from the Cato Institute.

But the plain fact is that Adam Smith was paid by slave traders to come up with a justification for their immoral exploitation and murder (how many captives died in transit?) of other human beings. Back in Adam Smith's time, his "free market" doctrine was called laissez faire and it was emphatically rejected by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. (Unfortunately, though the slave trade was ended in the U.S. by the early 1800s, the institution of slavery itself continued and festered until it helped cause the rupture of the 1860s.) It was not until the 1960s and 1970s, when laissez faire was repackaged as "free markets" and "free trade" by Milton Friedman and sold to Americans as "freedom to choose" that the economic doctrines of the slave trade and opium wars began to destroy American from within.

A particularly important book to read, for anyone who wants to understand more about the actual economic policies that created the United States, is The Great Challenge: The Myth of Laissez-Faire in the Early Republic, by Frank Bourgin. Interestingly, Bourgin's book is his 1940s PhD dissertation, which was rejected by the University of Chicago (where Friedman later taught). Bourgin published the book in the 1980s after being encouraged hy historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

I discussed a bit more of the history in a comment on Economic Populist, in which I outlined the role of what was known as The American System and its opposition to British East India Co. free markets and free trade:

Carey explained that the ability to import is based on the ability to pay. The ability pay, in turn, is based on the earning power of the nation’s workforce. If the workforce has to compete against cheaper labor in other countries, then its earning power will be diminished. Carey even anticipated the situation we find ourselves in today, noting in his time that as earning power diminished, the U.S. must buy imports on credit, creating a bubble of indebtedness that must sooner or later burst. Unfortunately, the person who discussed the American System a lot back then when I was writing was Lyndon LaRouche. But, in the late 1980s, James Fallows went to Korea and Japan to write about why their economies were doing so much better than the U.S.'s. The Koreans and Japanese gave him an earful of American history, including Carey, List, and E. Peshine Smith (Smith being the economist, I believe, who introduced American System thinking to the Japanese, which formed the basis for the period unfortunately called the Meiji Restoration, when Japan began to "copy" Western industrialization. In actuality, the Japanese were implementing the nation-building programs Alexander Hamilton had elaborated as Secretary of the Treasury. Fallows laid all this out in a great series of articles in The Atlantic. I suspect, but don't know for sure, that it was Fallows' articles that were picked up up Michael Lind, who is now one of the most vocal proponents for a return to American System policies. See especially Lind's 1997 book, Hamilton's Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition.

I have always thought that reframing the debate as the American System versus the British East India Co. would somehow appeal to some in the conservative movement, creating a wedge that could possibly begin to break it apart. Also, note that Thom Hartmann has picked up on the American System history, especially the role of Alexander Hamilton. So, we can look at the influence of Fallows, Lind, and Hartmann to see if it has worked. Regretfully, I have to conclude that it has not. But I really don't know what else might work, which is why I've been looking at the populist / agrarian movements of the 1880s and 1910s these past two months.

scats's picture
Submitted by scats on

Why not just call it capitalism?