Big Myth Stories: and narrower forms of argument.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, was a hard-hitting history in 2010 that  catapulted its authors to fame – Oreskes all the way to Harvard University; Conway remained at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech.

Their new book – The Big Myth:  How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market (Bloomsbury, 2023) – the authors describe as a prequel. In identifying the doubters, it exhibits the same strengths as before.  It displays greater weaknesses in establishing the various truths of the matter. It is, however, a page-turner, a powerful narrative, especially if you are already feeling a little paranoid and looking for a good long summer read.

It’s all true, at least as far as it goes.  Those three powerful intellects – Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises – started with unpopular arguments and won big.  From the National Electric Light Association and the Liberty League in the Twenties and Thirties, the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce in the Fifties and Sixties, to the Federalist Society and the Club for Growth of today, business interests have been spending money and working behind the scenes to boost enthusiasm for markets and to undermine faith in government initiative.

To tell their gripping story of ideas and money, Oreskes and Conway rely on much work done before.  Pioneers in this literature include Johan Van Overveldt  (The Chicago School: How the University of Chicago Assembled the Thinkers who Revolutionized Economics and Business, 2007); Steven Teles (The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law); 2008); Kim Phillips-Fein, (Invisible Hands: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, 2009); Jennifer Burns (Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, 2009); Phillip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe (The Road to Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, 2009); Daniel Rodgers (Age of Fracture, 2011); Nicholas Wapshott (Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, 2011); Angus Burgin (The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, 2012); Daniel Stedman Jones (Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, 2012); Robert Van Horn, Phillip Mirowski and Thomas Stapleford, (Building Chicago Economics: New Perspectives on the History of America’s Most Powerful Economics Program, 2011); Avner Offer, and Gabriel Söderberg (The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn, 2016); Lawrence Glickman (Free Enterprise: An American History, 2019); Binyamin Appelbaum (The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society) 2019); Jennifer Delton (The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism, 2020); and Kurt Andersen (Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America a Recent History, 2020). Biographies of Robert Bartley and Roger Ailes remain to be written.

So about those weaknesses? They boil down to this:  in The Big Myth you seldom get the other side of the story.  Take a fundamental example.  Oreskes and Conway assert that “the claim that America was founded on three basic interdependent principles: representative democracy, political freedom, and free enterprise,” cooked up in the Thirties by the National Association of  Manufactures for an advertising campaign.  This  so-called  called “Tripod of Freedom” was “fabricated,” Oreskes and Conway maintain; the words free enterprise appear nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, they declare.  That stipulation amounts to a curious “blind spot,” Harvard historian Luke Menand observed in a lengthy review in The New Yorker. There are mentions of property, though, writes Menand, “and almost every challenge to government interference in the economy rests on the concept of property.” See Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism (Princeton, 2022), by Glory Liu, for elaboration.

Similarly, the previous Big Myth with which the market fundamentalists and the business allies were contending received little attention. As the industrial revolution gathered pace in the late nineteenth century, progressives in the United States preached a gospel of government regulation. Germany’s success in nearly winning World War I received widespread attention. Britain emerged from World War II with a much more socialized economy than before. And in the US, government planning was espoused by intellectuals such as James Burnham and Karl Mannheim as the wave of the future.

Finally, The Big Myth largely ignores the experiences of ordinary Americans in the years that it covers.  For all the fury that Big Coal mounted against the Tennessee Valley Authority, its dams were built, nevertheless. There is only a single fleeting mention of George Orwell, though his novels Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949 probably influenced far more people than Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Paul Samuelson’s textbook explanation of the workings of “the modern mixed economy” dominated Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom tract for forty years and probably still does.

Yet there can be no doubt that there was a disjunction.  Oreskes and Conway mention that in the Seventies conservative historian George Nash considered that nothing that could be described as a conservative movement in the mid-Forties; that libertarians were a “forlorn minority.” President Harry Truman was reelected in 1948, and Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican served for eight years after him. Suddenly in 1964, Republicans nominated libertarian Barry Goldwater. Then came Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.

What happened? America’s Vietnam War, for one thing. Globalization for another.   Massive migrations occurred in the US, Blacks and Hispanics to the North, businesses to the West and the low-cost South.  Civil rights of all sorts revolutions unfolded, at all points of the compass. The composition of Congress and the Supreme Court changed all the while.

In Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway were on sound ground when making claims about tobacco, acid rain, DDT, the hole in the atmosphere’s ozone layer, and greenhouse gas emissions. These were matters of science, an enterprise devoted to the pursuit of questions in which universal agreement among experts can reasonably hope to be obtained. It was sensible to challenge the reasoning of skeptics in these matters, and to probe the outsized backing they received from those with vested interests. The interpretation of a hundred years of American politics is not science; much of it is not even a topic for proper historians yet. Agreement is reached, if at all, through elections, and elections take time.

Again, take a small matter, the interpretation of “the Reagan Revolution.”  Jimmy Carter started it, Oreskes and Conway maintain; Bill Clinton finished it via the “marketization” of the Internet, and most persons have suffered as a result. It is equally common to hear it proclaimed that Reagan presided over an agreement to repair the Social Security system for the next fifty years, ended the Cold War on peaceful terms, and, by accelerating industrial deregulation, ensured on American dominance in a new era of globalization.

In arguments of this sort, EP prefers Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming to Merchants of Doubt and Jacob Weisberg In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of Public Trust to The Big Myth. But EP shares Oreskes’ and Conway’s concerns while searching for opportunities to build more consensus. A century after today’s market fundamentalists began their long argument with Progressive Era enthusiasts for government planning, sunlight remains the best disinfectant.

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