Capitalistic/Free-Market Zealotry

Readers of science fiction and, in particular, fantasy often read about the evils of zealotry in fictional worlds, and how it destroys people. Likewise, we in the “enlightened” and industrialized world, particularly the western world, tend to look down on the Islamic “zealots,” and to ignore anything they say which doesn’t agree with our view of the world. Now… don’t get me wrong. I am not an apologist for the excesses of Islam, nor do I have any desire to live in a culture dominated by any version of Sharia, but we tend to forget that western industrialized culture also has its zealots. In particular I’m referring to the far right-wing, the business-model-is-best, policy wonks, politicians, and bureaucrats.

Earlier, I mentioned how the failures of airline deregulation could be traced to the fact that those structuring the deregulation failed to understand or even consider that the industry doesn’t fit into a free market because there are far too many geographic, economic, and structural barriers to free and open competition. But those facts were brushed aside, and now travelers face the possibility of transportation purgatory every time they enter an airport.

Just the other day I read that some economists were re-thinking the “free-trade” ideal, and the idea that free trade was always a blessing. In fact, this group concluded free trade might not necessarily be good for some developing nations, good as it might be for the rest of the world. Then, there are the educational bureaucrats who have been attempting to restructure education on a “business basis,” which results in institutions competing for students on the basis of popularity, the increasing easiness of courses and majors, and in the watering-down of curricula and the continued pressure to increase class sizes to gain economies of scale. Whole departments have been abolished in institution after institution because enrollments were not economic, all with little consideration about the educational role of a university — supposedly its purpose.

We face a tremendous oil crisis today in the United States because the “free-market” policies of our government continually discouraged investment in alternative fuels and in more efficient automotive transport, and it’s likely that at least one of the Big Three automakers will go under financially because a tacit reliance on the economic assumption that cheap oil would always be available, which encouraged U.S. automakers to concentrate on more profitable gas-guzzling huge SUVs and trucks. Yes, that was economics — short-term economics, because in consumer goods, the marketplace reflects the “now,” not the future. That’s just one of the problems with unfettered “free-marketing.” The readjustments when the economics change can be catastrophic, something the advocates of the “business model” fail to point out.

The problem is really fairly simple to describe: Not all aspects of any society fit the “free-market” mold, because while truly free markets are certainly efficient, first, not all societal actions fit into a free market, and, second, sometimes that vaunted free-market efficiency is brutally inhumane and uncivilized. Yet, anyone who raises those issues seriously and suggests that at times regulation and control of activities on a non-economic basis might just be necessary and justifiable risks an ire and scorn from the high priests of the market not all that much different in tone than non-believers in an Islamic nation risk from their high priests — except that in the United States, the market high priests only want the power to sever people from their jobs and benefits when either is “un-economic,” as opposed to severing people from their heads, which is highly possible in the more theocratic Islamic regimes.

In either case, however, just as in too many fantasy novels, the high priests are far more interested in the purity of their beliefs than in the practical welfare of their people, and in that sense, there’s not all that much difference between in the approach of the free-market zealots and the Islamic zealots.