The Baloney Detective: The cult of market fundamentalism

By Tim Bearly
Reader Contributor

“Welcome brothers and sisters, to the Temple of the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith; a sacred place of worship, where our glorious free-market system can be praised and upheld as sacrosanct — without interference from the outside world of the socialists. Indeed, blasphemers and economic heretics, ye be warned. In our insular bubble of a community, we shall not tolerate dissent — for this is, after all, a fellowship of reverence and acquiescence, and not the time or place to question and challenge our deeply held economic beliefs. 

“Behold our glorious marketplace, with all of its blessings that trickle down upon us like a golden shower of freedom and liberty — ensuring that we all have the freedom to ‘purchase’ health care and the liberty to get drunk on wine when we finally realize that none of our dreams are going to come to fruition.”

Such is the mentality of the market fundamentalist.

But does our beloved economic system have any shortcomings? Is that a question that we are permitted to ask? Moreover, is that a question that we have the courage to ask? 

People often view the cult mentality through a kaleidoscope of binary reasoning. When we think of cults we typically envision religious zealotry and conjure up images of Jonestown and Waco, seldom understanding that cultish behavior is exhibited, albeit to different degrees, by all groups, institutions and collective bodies — and yes, that includes our group, not just those “sheeple” who belong to some other out-group.

When the ideology of a group becomes too sacred to be criticized by its members (be it conservatism, liberalism, capitalism, communism or pretty much any “ism”), the group inches one step closer to the cultish end of the spectrum. Dissenters are shamed and excommunicated, while those who parrot the consensus without question are rewarded by climbing the social ladder of the group. 

So the question isn’t, “Do you belong to a cult?”; it’s, “To what degree does the group you belong to exhibit cult-like behavior, and to what degree do you have the fortitude to swim against the tide of conformity?”

Since there aren’t any members of the Senate or House of Representatives who are communists (no doubt, many would dispute this assertion), and since the pendulum of our economy seems to be leaning more and more in the direction of extreme wealth concentration (billionaires became $5 trillion richer during the pandemic), I’ll leave the brave task of attacking the ideology communism to the true “iconoclasts,” like Jordan Peterson. 

(Sorry for the dig, Dr. Peterson, I suppose I should self-censor and “clean my room” before I engage in such vituperation?) 

I am focusing here, as noted, on the cult of market fundamentalism.

Market fundamentalism, a.k.a. free-market fundamentalism, is the belief that no-holds-barred capitalism, i.e. unregulated capitalism, is the best way to resolve our economic and social problems: “If only we could deregulate the market and decentralize the government,” they claim, “we would all be freer and more prosperous.” 

This religious-like ideology often goes hand-in-hand with the assertion that anyone who supports regulations and social programs is a “ big-government” socialist. Consequently, we are faced with a good ol’ fashioned false dichotomy: you’re either a capitalist or a socialist, and nothing in between. 

It is absurd to suggest that the best way to solve our social, economic and environmental problems is to completely deregulate the market. When a corporation can maximize profit by cutting corners, that is precisely what they are going to do — it is, after all, more cost effective to let someone else worry about the externalities. When an insurance company can increase its bottom line by denying people coverage, you guessed it, that is precisely what they are going to do — it is, after all, more cost effective to let some people die.

Competition, they claim, is what makes the free market function so well. Indeed, competition in the private sector can be beneficial for things like innovation and keeping costs low; however, if we eliminate all antitrust laws, corporations will simply gobble up the competition by buying them out and, voilà, an oligopoly with no more competition to worry about. 

Let this Milton Friedman-esque fantasy play out in a simulator, and we’d end up with one corporation owning everything; one gazillionaire ruling over a dying planet of impotent vassal states. 

If anything, we need more robust antitrust laws, as our current system is seemingly powerless to forbid unlawful mergers and business practices. 

If we could only remove our spectacles of tribalism, then perhaps it would be easier for us to see the logical path forward: letting the private sector do what it does best, and letting the public sector do what it does best. As it turns out, a for-profit health care system isn’t something that an unregulated free market should be trusted with. Alas, I don’t have as much faith in the almighty invisible hand as my vociferous, fundamentalist compatriots.

To get a picture of what life might be like in this laissez-faire Elysium, we must simply examine the human condition before the mitigating forces of government regulations were established — the Gilded Age is a prime example. Rewind the clock a few thousand years before that, and you have human beings in a state of nature that is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. 

Hence the need for a social contract: an agreement made by the members of a society that certain freedoms should be sacrificed to the sovereign of a civil state in return for the protection of the group as a whole. Hobbes believed that this state entity was imperative. He called it the Leviathan, and the social contract that we all implicitly accept is quite simple: We will all agree not to kill others in exchange for being protected from others who would wish to kill us (OK, so maybe that’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea).

Some, of course, don’t necessarily require this kind of protection, as they have the necessary resources to protect themselves. Naturally, many affluent individuals in the private sector have an unfavorable view of such an exchange — the little they may gain from surrendering to the Leviathan is not worth losing the freedom they have to exploit the planet and its inhabitants. Indeed, these individuals often become the cult leaders of market fundamentalism, deceiving others into believing that what is best for the individual is always best for the collective. 

With many of our political debates revolving around the fallacy of the excluded middle (i.e. individualism vs. collectivism, or as some might say, “freedom vs. big government”), it is incumbent upon us to resist the impulse to see everything in black and white, and to understand that, in many cases, there are multiple shades of gray. 

Government power, no doubt, should always be held in check — the Founding Fathers understood this, and that is why we have three branches of government instead of just one. Government, in the words of Thomas Paine, is a necessary evil. 

Individual liberty should be at the forefront of all political discourse; however, we must also be cognizant of the fact that sometimes when one individual is given more freedom, another individual’s freedom is stripped away. Moreover, we must acknowledge that when a corporation is given the “liberty” to pump carbon into the atmosphere with impunity, the lives — and yes, the freedom — of billions of individuals may ultimately be affected.

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