Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call their deeply researched new book, The Big Myth, “the true history of a false idea.” The false idea in question is not really a single idea but rather many connected assertions, promoted throughout the 20th century, that have gelled into the “quasi-religious belief that the best way to address our needs—whether economic or otherwise—is to let markets do their thing, and not rely on government.”
Both Oreskes and Conway are highly praised historians of science and technology. Their blockbuster 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, examined the effort by a small number of scientists to undermine the evidence of climate change. One common denominator they found among these scientists was a distrust of government. The scientists’ ideological and economic biases led them to oppose anything that would admit a need for governmental action. In the introduction to their new book, Oreskes and Conway say that this discovery was what led them to do a deep dive into the ideology of neoliberal, free-market, anti-government thought, which has persuaded many Americans that unregulated markets are inseparable from democracy and freedom.
But are those things really inseparable, the authors wonder. In an early chapter, Oreskes and Conway point out that Adam Smith, a seminal theorist of capitalism, believed that government regulations were in fact needed to preserve a competitive playing field. Another chapter examines the moment in American history when power companies decided it was just too expensive to bring electricity to rural farming communities. They believed the market was too small, but at the same time, they resisted community alternatives. In the end, it was the government, not business, that literally brought power to the people. This leads the authors to wonder, how do markets alone supposedly make people free? In later chapters, they examine the economic, political and public relations efforts that have fostered our belief in this pervasive myth that government is the problem and markets are the solution.
The Big Myth is deeply detailed in its argument. Readers will be intellectually enlivened by chapters such as “No More Grapes of Wrath,” which looks at the ideological shift in the movie industry, and the revelatory chapter “The American Road to Serfdom,” which explores the popular rise of economist Milton Friedman and the “Chicago school,” which deftly promoted the libertarian argument against government involvement in markets. The way the book challenges each component of market mythology is hugely impressive—but the book is sometimes so detailed in its pursuit of the truth that some readers will surely become intellectually exhausted.
Still The Big Myth’s arguments do add up. “Markets are good for many things,” the authors write, “but they are not magic.” In a world facing existential threats like climate change, markets alone do not suffice, they argue. Governments must act.