In contemporary America, belief in the free market economy above all else is absolute. It is unarguable. And yet there is no such thing as a “free market,” despite the noisy claims of the fundamentalist marketeers, their apologists in the bought media, and the well-mannered barbarians from the business schools. The “free market” is highly contested, politically managed, extensively regulated, and supported by government policy and our tax dollars at every level—often, but not always, to the advantage of the rich. Historically the free marketeers have howled at the elimination of child labor (“Let the little tykes earn a buck!”), inspections at meatpacking plants, the organizing of trade unions (“Selfish Bolsheviks!”), environmental regulations, clean air and water standards (“The market will sort it all out in the long run”), health and safety regulations in mines and fields and factories, the eight-hour day (“How dare you arrogant elitists deprive the laborer of his freedom to work as many hours as he likes?”), and the abolition of their right to trade in human beings. Of course chattel slavery was but one form of human trade and trafficking, and wage slavery—though different—is another. Today a defining stance of the marketeers is roaming the world in the company of extravagant military power in search of resources and markets as well as dirt-cheap, super-exploited labor that can be had without those pesky rules (“Child labor has the added benefit of teaching the natives discipline and obedience right from the start”) and then get cast aside without consequence.
Modern economists extol the wisdom of the “free market” in hushed tones typically reserved for glorifying a holy book, or they mumble about the “laws of the marketplace” as if explaining the laws of magnetism or optics or aerodynamics. When my oldest son was in college he took Economics 101 and within a couple of weeks he’d figured it out: if you substituted the word “capitalism” every time the textbooks or the professor said “market,” “economics,” or “industrialism” it made the readings and lectures completely sensible. Economics was simply a metric that reflected political choices and (with more or less accuracy) the social and class relations of society. When he asked why the course wasn’t called Capitalism 101, the professor responded, “Same thing.” Indeed.
Economists quantify everything, disguising their values and their meanings in a mystifying faux-language of objectivity. They advise the rest of us ordinary folks, as the Wizard advised the four seekers skipping down the yellow brick road toward Oz, “Don’t look behind that curtain!”
Let’s look anyway.
It would be more honest to admit that economics—like history or anthropology or political science—is a smashing together of the subjective and the objective, or, more precisely an interpretive look at facts and forces that exist in the world. It’s the gathering of statistics in order to describe and construct the world, and the decision as to what we count is of primary importance. Neither the facts and forces nor the interpretations are beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. We don’t need to be technical experts to be active citizens engaged in the big questions that impact who we are or what we become as people or as a society. We can know we want clean food and water without being epidemiologists; we can say that we want bridges to hold up and airplanes to stay in the air without degrees in engineering; we can recognize that gross disparities in wealth distort and destroy democracy without spreadsheets that can only be read with a magnifying glass; we can decide that nuclear power plants are a bad idea without PhDs in physics. And we can decide we want a system of production and distribution that is transparent, participatory, and in the service of the general welfare—it’s not rocket science. Oh, and we can decide what kinds of rockets ought to be built, too, and how they should be used as well.
But now we see clearly that everything is quantified and everything has its price under capitalism. Everything can be bought and sold; everything is reduced to a cash nexus. Birthing a child, cancer treatments, childhood vaccinations, clean water—everything is monetized. We’re encouraged to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. We’re instructed to think of health, for example, not as a human right or a common good, but as an industry—the health care industry. Similarly it becomes less and less jarring to hear talk of the housing market (as opposed to housing), the food industry (not food as an obvious universal need), and the public safety and education markets. The water bazaar is well under way; still to come: the air exchange. This is the way it is, but this is not the way it has to be—not at all.