Why do Americans believe in the “magic of the marketplace”?
The answer, as Erik M. Conway contends in The Big Myth (with coauthor Naomi Oreskes), is a propaganda blitz. Until the early 1900s, the U.S. government’s guiding role in economic life was largely accepted. But then business elites, trade associations, wealthy powerbrokers, and media allies combatted regulation by building a new orthodoxy: down with “big government,” up with unfettered markets. Unearthing eye-opening archival evidence, the authors document campaigns to rewrite textbooks, combat unions, and defend child labor. They detail the ploys that turned hardline economists Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman into household names, recount the libertarian roots of the Little House on the Prairie books, and tune into the General Electric-sponsored TV show that beamed free-market doctrine (and the young Ronald Reagan) to millions.
Conway argues that by the 1970s, the crusade had succeeded, paving the way for an ideology that would define the next 50 years of Republican and Democratic administrations and fuel housing, opioid, climate, and public health crises. By understanding this history, The Big Myth aims to help us imagine a future where markets will serve, not stifle, democracy.
Erik Conway is a historian of science and technology and works for the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of seven books and dozens of articles and essays. He lives in Pasadena, California.
David Roberts is the proprietor of a newsletter & podcast called Volts, about clean energy & politics.
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