Last month, Time Magazine published an article asserting that the “free market” was effectively dead. The author then went on to speculate over what might replace.it. (For the record, I’m pretty skeptical of definitive pronouncements of this sort–as I used to tell my students, the real world is considerably more complicated than that.)
Time’s conclusion was evidently prompted by a recent meeting in the White House between President Biden and the CEOs of some of America’s largest companies, attended by the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (whose “presence was enough to rock the political landscape” according to the article.)
“Washington’s most powerful trade group is having a political identity crisis,” wrote Politico. Two weeks later, a group of 150 CEOs, unaffiliated with the Chamber, followed suit, throwing their weight behind Biden’s COVID relief bill, which sailed through Congress. They have been similarly supportive of the additional $2 trillion the administration has now proposed for infrastructure spending – but they unsurprisingly don’t want corporate tax rates to be the means for paying for it.
The article went on to say that corporate America’s support for public investment is not a new or temporary phenomenon–rather, it’s evidence of the “most profound realignment in American political economy in nearly forty years,” and it cites the rise of ethno-nationalism on the right and democratic socialism on the left as evidence of a widespread disillusionment with conventional economic wisdom.
For the record, the “conventional economic wisdom” being undermined has only been conventional for some 40 years.
The article traces the evolution of free market absolutism, and acknowledges that prior to the 1970s, most economists had advocated fairly robust government action—countercyclical fiscal spending, management of the currency, tactical protectionism—to create long-term prosperity. The emergence and influence of what the article calls “free market apostles” changed that, and led to what we now call Reaganomics–the notion that virtually any government regulation of the market is unhelpful, if not illegitimate. (This required some cherrypicking of Adam Smith, but hey…)
Interestingly, in what may be the most insightful portion of the article, it connected this shift to an anti-government “free market” philosophy to racial politics. The need for government to take a “hands off” approach coincided with federal efforts to ameliorate some of the most egregious economic effects of state-sanctioned racism.
In any event, while the article argues that public and expert opinion have swung against what it labels “free-market orthodoxy,” what is actually happening–at least among people who are concerned with such things– is a return to a much more nuanced understanding of market economics.
Virtually all rich countries today have mixed economies, in which certain services are “socialized”–i.e., provided communally by government–and others are left to a market subject to reasonable regulation. Americans love “either/or” politics–it’s either capitalism or socialism, freedom or tyranny. That makes for great sloganeering, but bad politics.
The issue isn’t free markets versus socialism. The actual issues confronting policymakers are much more nuanced, and fall into two broad categories: 1) which services ought to be provided by government, and which should be left to the market? and 2) what regulations are needed to ensure the proper operation of that market and which are counterproductive? Just how “free” should markets be?
People of good will will have different answers to those questions, and it would be nice if the ensuing arguments were evidence based–although I’m not holding my breath.
I do know that those evidence-based conversations are not encouraged by headlines suggesting that a new emphasis on anti-trust enforcement or other regulatory activity is tantamount to the end of the free market.