MarketThink and moderateness

by Rob Horning

13 November 2006


Mark Thoma and Ezra Klein both link to this article by Christopher Hayes about what one learns in University of Chicago introductory economics class. Chicago, of course, is the spawning ground for anti-Keynesian ultra-free-market “neoclassical” perspectives, epitomized by Milton Friedman, that gained political currency in America in the 1980s. The article basically delineates what Tom Slee, in his book No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (a misleading title, as the attitude it expresses is what it critiques; Chris Dillow reviews it here), calls MarketThink: the belief that the free market aggregates individual choices to reveal what society prefers while affording a medium within which an individual can make choices that reveal her preferences. In other words, the belief that individual choice is always sovereign in the marketplace and yields desired outcomes, and thus the world we currently live with is the people’s choice, and to go against it is an elitist or totalitarian impulse. The competitive market is presumed to solve all social problems meritoriously, and if problems persist, it’s because competition remainds regrettably imperfect. Slee’s book uses staples from political science and game theory—the prisoner’s dilemma, the tragedy of the commons, the free-rider problem, the collective action problem—to expose the oversimplification of this worldview without tossing it out altogether. He turns its precepts against itself.

Hayes is up to something different; he is concerned that intro economics courses normalize MarketThink and present it as objective truth, as apolitical rather than the inherently conservative tool it often is (it typically rationalizes arangements that see public goods falter while private wealth accumulates in the hands of a few who increasingly monopolize power). He exposes how the seemingly commonsense models of basic economics have vast explanatory power and how they allow one to marvel at the seeming obfuscations partisan commentators make to muddle the picture. And he gives a sense of the economist’s knee-jerk contrarianism (what Hirschmann dubs the “perversity argument” in The Rhetoric of Reaction). Hayes seems especially inspired by the way the class rises up against the professor when the professor’s free-trade enthusiasm carries him into more overt propagandizing but laments that students are perhaps skeptical only in cases where professors seem to excited—that they are knee-jerk cynics. Hayes suggests that if you can present your partisan spin with centrist equinamity, no one will bother to question it; that tone rather than substance is all-important. They don’t see “moderateness” as a position but as some average that equals the truth. Thes tudents skepticism of unmitigated enthusiasm for a position marked it as a weak position to them; hence the ironic presentation of information in the Daily Show era—the sideways presentation of political ideas marks them with a cool that doubles as credibility; it too dissudes questions that dissolve in the all-encompassing presentation of attitude.

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