Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Market Shall Set You Free... in the NY Times?

Jan 28, 2005

The Market Shall Set You Free... in the NY Times?

It's just so odd to see NYT Op-Ed pieces with pro-free-market rhetoric; so readers should check out Robert Wright's essay,"The Market Shall Set You Free." Wright has some interesting things to say:
... this Republican president doesn't appreciate free markets. Mr. Bush doesn't see how capitalism helps drive history toward freedom via an algorithm that for all we know is divinely designed and is in any event awesomely elegant. Namely: Capitalism's pre-eminence as a wealth generator means that every tyrant has to either embrace free markets or fall slowly into economic oblivion; but for markets to work, citizens need access to information technology and the freedom to use it - and that means having political power. This link between economic and political liberty has been extolled by conservative thinkers for centuries, but the microelectronic age has strengthened it. ... Given that involvement in the larger capitalist world is time-release poison for tyranny, impeding this involvement is an odd way to aid history's march toward freedom. ... Mr. Bush doesn't grasp the liberating power of capitalism, the lethal effect of luring authoritarian regimes into the modern world of free markets and free minds.

Sounds like an ad for Reason magazine!

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jake smith - 2/3/2005

I'm glad to have discovered this discussion about reaching out to the left. It's a topic that is of interest to me since I was once on the left myself. Much of my conversion consisted of discovering the gap between what corporatists say and claim to promote (free enterprise) and what they actually implement. Discovering that libertarians had a strong anti-war streak led me to delve into the material at places such as Lew Rockwell's web site and the Mises Institute. The various writings of Roderick Long were also quite persuasive and made me reconsider my positions.

Jeanine Ring's comments about the cultural critique of corporate culture is something to acknowledge, as it is something that is often neglected. Just think of all the people on the left who read publications such as Adbusters, which seem to critique corporate culture more than actual economic backbone of it all.

Perception of history is also important. What I've noticed lately is that while there is much buzz over Thomas Woods's new text, many on the left absolutely worship the version of history present in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Couple that with the mainstream publik school version of events and you get a large number of people thinking that we actually had a laissez-faire free market period in our history, and that it was disasterous. Many of these people are hoping for a progressive politician to step out of the woodwork and initiate a new progressive era and a new New Deal, perhaps someone like Dennis Kucinich.

I personally feel that more emphasis needs to be made for people to become accustomed to the works of historians like Gabriel Kolko who exposed the flaws with the conventional view of progressive era reforms. The fact that Kolko is a leftie should hopefully make this easier, since people on the left can't simply dismiss him as an apologist for big business.

While surfing the web the past few months, I've discovered a number of writings online that seem to present the kinds of ideas and analysis that would help the change the way people on the left percieve free markets and libertarianism. I've devoted a portion of the sidebar on my blog ( <url>http://freemanlc.blogspot.com<;/url> ) to providing links to those writings. If anyone here knows of any other materials that would be handy here, please let me know.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/30/2005

I find a lot of myself in your commentary, and empathize with your efforts.

It's interesting because there are people on the left who are more predisposed to "system-thinking"---and that can be valuably exploited by those of us who are radical and who think in terms of interlocking systems and the mutual implications of different structures (political, cultural, economic, etc.) in society.

What is also interesting, however, is that some conservatives understand this too: That's why so many focus on the "Culture War"... because they realize that many of the battles are cultural.

Still. There is a reason why much of what libertarians offer is "beyond left and right." I've never been one to argue that either left or right are unreachable. Whatever libertarians can do to reach out to potential fellow-travelers is important.

Anthony Gregory - 1/29/2005

Marxists are problematic, and have many inconsistencies and variations among them, to say the least. The left-anarchists, who I think are becoming more common than Marxists, are better at realizing that, whatever your terminology, the state only makes the economic sphere more unjust, corrupt and unsavory.

Of course, these are generalizations. But I have managed to explain libertarianism to a good number of leftists in Berkeley, moving many of them toward, sometimes completely toward, economic libertarianism. It takes time, patience, and an understanding of the left. Not all libertarians are perfectly suited for the task, but the left simply has not gotten the attention they deserve as targets for conversion.

I think the key is not to think of leftists as at the opposite end on the spectrum, to not think of them as worse than conservatives and to not think of conservatives as simply libertarians who are hung up on a couple issues.

I see in leftists a basic contradiction. They want to destroy central authority and enhance it, smash the state and yet take it over. There's an antiauthoritarianism mixed with a paternalism. What I like to do is gently accuse them of being right wingers on economics. ; ) I tell them Bismarck invented the modern welfare state, big business gave us the Progressive Era and Nixon created the EPA. Then I explain why the propensity of anti-egalitarian elements to successfuly grab power and expand the state is a virtual certainty. I think the hardest sell is on environmental issues (though, even here, I think sometimes the left is more perceptive than the right or some libertarians, if not more rational). One of the deceptively easier sells, one that is often not attempted much at all, and one that strikes a fatal blow to the foundations of many problems with leftist economic analysis, is the fascist nature of public education.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/29/2005


The key, however, is their belief that capitalism is inherently statist. In fact, Marxists, in general, are not apt to equate "capitalism" and "the free market." It is practically defined as that cluster of social relations marked by economic exploitation and the political rule of the capitalist class. They view market and state as co-extensive, and their ultimate utopia is one in which both the market and the state wither away. That they choose to use the state as an instrument to help in the withering away... well, it "doesn't make sense," as you put it. Talk about internal contradictions. :)

I should point out that not all Marxists have argued this; some follow the work of Antonio Gramsci, who thought that the institutions of civil society needed to be changed culturally so that a political revolution would be superfluous.

Anthony Gregory - 1/29/2005

Chris, in my experience, the left seems to have improved on this. Most left-socialists I know, and even Marxists, will not argue that corporatism is a natural outgrowth of markets. They will not argue that the state keeps big business in check more than free enterprise would. Instead, they think that "capitalism" is inherently statist, and they define the word in quite a murky way. I know many anti-capitalists who think they believe in "free markets," and indeed do not seem to advocate state intervention.

Yes, I know this doesn't make sense, but that's what some of them seem to think.

Of course, arguing only against modern corporatism isn't sufficient (but I do think it's necessary) in swaying many on the left. I instead argue that corporatism is a natural consequence, not of property and markets, but of state intervention. Then I throw in arguments about the inevitable failure of central planning. Then I bring up natural rights and the inalienable right to property. If you hit them over the head with the last one right at the beginning, many of them won't listen to you. But it's a good way to cap it all off.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/29/2005

I know there has been a lot of discussion here about reaching out to the left---and I am the very last person to object to reaching out to the left, given that I did so much of my collegial training under Marxists, and that I've been spending the better part of 20 years talking about "dialectical method" (so often identified with the left) and the need to define and promote a libertarian "radicalism."

But I do have a few words of caution: Most radical leftists I have known have always maintained that the current-day corporatism is a natural outgrowth of the free market. They, like many libertarians, have argued that the state has always been intimately involved in markets, acting on behalf of those who are most adept at using political power. For Marxists and other radical left-wingers, however, this means that political power is systematically skewed in favor of business interests. The ideology of free-markets is, therefore, a mere apologia for a class-biased reality that is inescapable as long as private property and market exchange exist.

Now, it is true that this same corporatism is presented to the rest of the world as the "free market"---and this explains, at least partially, why so many are opposed to it. But until or unless libertarians can convince the left that there is an "unknown ideal" to free markets, that corporatism is not an inevitability, I doubt that there will be any lasting peace with the left. Coalition building is, of course, possible and desirable. But not at the expense of one's soul. And I'd say the same thing about the conservative right.

Jeanine Ring - 1/29/2005


For as far as it goes, I think you're quite right- this *is* a point libertarians should emphasize more. And there's a *cultural* side to this too: what many leftists oppose in their antagonism to corporations into just mercantilist exploration but the heirarchical, conformist structure and "Dilbert" culture of corporate modernity. If libertarians favor a world where corporations aren't the specially priviledged, legally impersoned defauly forms of social organization, they should some thoughts as to what 'human scale' forms of socio-commercial relations might look like.

Part of what drives the left away from libertarians is the feeling that libertarians would be perfectly happy to see everyone as shrivelled office drones inside of corporate boxes. I think the left has the right instincts here- especially when in our economic era the boxtowers are the established churches of the times.

We just need to draw the line at the Left aetting up a New Regime to knock down all the boxtowers.



Anthony Gregory - 1/28/2005

If libertarians can explain that the right actually opposes free markets, but instead embraces corporatism and state capitalism, the battle to win them over will be half-won. One reason they don't like markets is because people like Bush pretend to like them, but I think the left is catching on.

For years, I think libertarians have tried to convince the left that the right was actually correct on economics. This is the wrong strategy.

Jason Kuznicki - 1/28/2005

I was just going to post a link here myself.

Max Swing - 1/28/2005

Someone obviously didn't make his homework. Perhaps he meant the so called "invisible hand" leading the free market to a balanced outcome. But, meh, I can only guess what he truly meant.

Jeanine Ring - 1/28/2005

"Mr. Bush doesn't see how capitalism helps drive history toward freedom via an algorithm that for all we know is divinely designed and is in any event awesomely elegant."

'Diveinely designed'? I'm not an atheist (not a theist for that matter), but am I the only one who thinks this sentence makes the free market look really, really stupid?

If I was a leftist, I would be somewhere between rolling my eyes and laughing my hiney off.

just my response.

Jeanie )(*)(