Freedom isn’t free, especially not free markets

Thomas Friedman’s column in this morning’s (12/26) New York Times reminded me I’ve been meaning to rant about this for a while.

About 1/3 of the way through, Friedman repeats a common neoliberal talking point–that the government has to address its debt/deficit problems before “the market” does, which is another way of saying that the government can’t afford to upset corporate big spenders by enacting bad fiscal policy.

There’s only one problem with this argument in my opinion; it’s utterly ass-backwards.  Two ways of thinking about this.

First, if you actually believe in free market economics policy, then you should also believe that it is NOT THE GOVERNMENT’S JOB TO MAKE POLICY THAT’S FRIENDLY TO YOU.  We lefties have a term for this: corporate welfare.  When you (rich people, owner class) suck government money and benefits out of the system, you should have to submit to every single regulation we can think of.  Or, if you want to be unregulated, you’re not entitled to any government support whatsoever.  Either of those stances is principled; anything in between should cost you your free market street cred.

The other way of putting the problem is this: when Friedman and other neo-liberals predict how markets will react to government policies, essentially what they’re doing is feeding ownership language and propaganda for fighting policies they don’t like.  Or maybe I should put it this way.  They’re speaking for ownership in a way that gets ownership off the hook from having to violate the principle above.  Or maybe I should put it this way: they’re doing owership’s dirty work by making government policy subservient to the “needs” of the market when in fact what they’re doing is asserting the *preferences* of ownership to maximize their profits at government, public, and consumer (read: everybody else’s) expense.

Friedman’s hardly the only person to fall into this trap, and he’s an easy strawman version of a neo-liberal dressed in progressive clothing.  At the same time, his bully-pulpit at the NY Times makes him seem much more reasonable than he actually is.  Those of us who study, or even notice, the rhetoric of neo-liberalism find people like Friedman really troubling.  And this column is exactly why.

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