Why the Left Isn't Convinced by Your Economics Arguments
Listen to Ryan McMaken's commentary on the Radio Rothbard podcast.
Among advocates for free-markets, I'm often told that the unconverted will embrace free-markets if only we explain to them "good economics."
But here's the problem — many anti-capitalists don't think economics is a real thing, a real science, or anything other than corporate propaganda. They think it's something invented by wealthy people to create a fake philosophical justification for why they should be allowed to keep their riches.
In other words, these leftists think that your appeals to "economic science" are just a ruse for pushing an ideology invented to keep poor people poor and powerless.
Economics as Corporate Propaganda
But don't take my word for it.
In an essay on "corporate propaganda and global capitalism,"1 Sharon Beder explains how the promotion of "neoclassical orthodoxy" by "neoconservative economists" [by which she just means free-market economists] in the past was little more than a propaganda campaign to convince people that their own interests coincide with those of private businesses.2 These economic theories have a patina of real scholarship so as to look like:
An elegant body of microeconomic theory [which] shows that under certain circumstances the general good... will be promoted by a set of competitive markets and integration into the world economy.
But really, these theories exist to give "a public-interest rationale to liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation that provided cover for the self-interested motivations of corporations."
This conspiratorial view is likely far more widely held than many economists would like to believe.
In his book Financial Literacy Education: Neoliberalism, the Consumer and the Citizen, Chris Arthur regards "economics education" as little more than a form of social conditioning, and relates how "the expansion of business propaganda" was made possible by organizations like "Junior Achievement founded in 1919 to teach American students the importance of learning to 'work effectively and to become a useful, self-supporting, honorable member of society.'"
Needless to say, Arthur does not quote the mission statement from Junior Achievement with approval.
Moreover, Arthur contends that organizations like the Joint Council on Economic Education are little more than the propaganda arms of huge corporations like 3M, Verizon, and JPMorgan Chase. The materials produced by these groups are more or less exercises in "capitalist cheerleading" that are "too often the norm" when consumer education texts stray too far into the realm of economic theory.
This isn't to say, of course, that large business interests don't produce materials and marketing campaigns designed to make themselves look good. That happens often enough. But it is important to note that many on the anti-capitalist left make no distinction between serious economics scholarship and organizations that exist to shill for big business.
Certainly, principled economists will be among the first to note that good economic policy is not at all synonymous with what's good for agri-business, banks, or telecom companies. Very often, those interest groups use the power of state regulation and state-sponsored bailouts to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else. Ayn Rand's claim that big business is America's "persecuted minority" has always been complete nonsense.
Most leftwing ideologues don't see these distinctions, however. For them, nearly any organization devoted to "economic education" or "economic research" exists primarily to provide a pseudo-intellectual cover for corporations looking for a "scientific" justification for their exploitation of ordinary people.
So, when advocates for markets suggest that people will embrace free markets if only they are presented with "facts, reason, and logic," these people are likely being far too optimistic.
This view of economics as propaganda is then reinforced by the fact that a pro-interventionist view is by far the dominant view in secondary education and in higher education outside economics departments. This view is then accepted more or less uncritically by a sizable portion of the population.
Thus, when confronted with a well-reasoned and logically sound argument against, say, the minimum wage, the listener is simply left mystified that anyone would oppose a regulation that they believe so obviously benefits low-income people. When confronted with this situation, it's not difficult to see why the non-economist would then be left with the impression that the person presenting the "logical" argument — assuming that person is relatively well off — is really just arguing in favor of his own economic interests. A more "humane" person, of course, would want to help poor people by endorsing a minimum wage hike.
This scenario assumes a relatively forgiving listener who happens to have casually adopted the interventionist line.
A less forgiving, more ideological leftist on the receiving end of an economics spiel will regard arguments against the minimum wage as either the opinions of a devoted egoist with no regard for the less fortunate, or as the ranting of a "useful idiot" who parrots economic views that are good only for the ultra-rich — and which are contrary even to the useful idiot's own interests.
An Anti-Market View of History
In either case, it remains very difficult to break through years of anti-capitalism learned both in the classroom and through popular culture. These views are solidified not so much by alternative economic arguments, but by a view of history which re-enforces the view that government intervention is the only viable real-world solution to the perpetual exploitation of the poor by everyone else. We can see this, for example, in the still-dominant view of history through which a great many people associate industrialization and capitalism with filthy children eating scraps on the streets of London during the nineteenth century.3 It was only when governments intervened to mandate a welfare state that families were saved from deadly child labor and grinding poverty. Similar popular historical lessons also push the view that it was the New Deal in America which "saved capitalism from the capitalists" and which saved bankrupt farmers from rapacious foreclosing bankers who were driving ordinary people to the brink of starvation. To this day, school children read and believe largely false accounts like Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle, while decades of dystopian films have convinced many that if not for government intervention, we'd all be living in a world like that portrayed in Robocop.
These views of history are wrong, but when confronted with economic theory, the targeted listener attempts to square the theory with what he or she believes to be actual historical experience. Usually, what the listener believes to be real history wins out, and it's then easy to dismiss laissez-faire economic theory as "nice in theory, but it has failed to improve things in real life."
Thus, the only hope in making good economic theory convincing, to someone who is not already sympathetic, lies in two things:
- Convincing the listener it is possible to believe laissez-faire economic theory and still be a reasonably decent and humane person.
- Present a version of history in which markets can be shown to be the most critical factor in actually and empirically improving the lives of ordinary human beings.
Both of these are, of course, time consuming and difficult tasks. Both often involve building personal relationships with people, and having an excellent command of economic history. They involve a lot more than just pummeling people for a few minutes with "facts and logic."
In his writings on presenting "the freedom philosophy" to the unconverted, market-evangelist-extraordinaire Leonard Read often emphasized the need for educating one's self extensively first, and then exercising a lot of patience. The Left has spent many decades putting their ideas into practice through classroom instruction at all levels of education, and by creating and writing songs, books, movies, and a host of other media for communicating their historical and moral views. It remains unclear if many advocates for free markets have much interest in putting a similar amount of effort into promoting their own views.
- 1. Sharon Beder, "Corporate propaganda and global capitalism - Selling free enterprise?," in M.J. Lacy, and P. Wilkin, eds., Global Politics in theInformation Age (Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 116-130
- 2. Beder doesn't use the term "neoconservative" in the sense that the term is used in the US to describe the ideology of foreign-policy interventionists. She simply means center-right ideologues who support what she calls neoliberalism.
- 3. Professional historians tend to have far more nuanced views on these matters. The "popular" version of history, however, depends on a highly simplistic view of history learned possibly as early as grade school.