Review of ‘The Big Myth- How American Business Taught Us To Loathe Government And Love The Free Market’ by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

What are your views of ‘Government’ and where do these come from?

How much should any government regulate industry, if at all?

With the fossil fuel giant Shell reporting their highest profits in 115 years of almost $40 billion this year, calls have intensified in the UK at least, for a bigger windfall tax on energy companies from the government.

When we observe how big businesses, and individual business owners behave today, wielding their power autocratically- surely it’s time to ask if this is really how we want business to behave. How can we hold them to account as they create mega-media conglomerates and monopolies?

Oreskes and Conway return in ‘The Big Myth- How American Business Taught Us To Loathe Government And Love The Free Market’ to reveal how the narrative and belief system of a ‘free market’ has dominated the American ideology- oftentimes in the face of evidence that leads to the opposition view. The meticulous, detailed, patient and thorough research that was the hallmark of ‘Merchants of Doubt’ is once again on display, as the authors evaluate the history of a construction of a myth.’ The forensic unravelling of the dominant pro-business ideology is potentially more aimed at an American audience, with cultural and historical references throughout. The underlying moral however, has lessons for all countries, as the 21st century faces multiplying threats and the narrative continues as to where the solutions will come from. ‘Many people think climate change will be best addressed by technological innovation in the marketplace’

 This book therefore, is not one which simply looks back to how a myth was constructed in one country throughout the 20th century, but rather a studious deconstruction of why we have thought of ‘government’ and ‘business’ in particular ways and who has benefitted from this conditioning.

The authors are keen to highlight that the presented false dichotomies of ‘Big Business’ or ‘Big Government’ are not the absolute choices that they appear to be. ‘Our choices are not confined to oppressive communism or heartless capitalism. To suggest that they are is a dangerous failure of vision.’

Understanding the insidious messaging and omnipresent integration propaganda that has existed, whether for the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry, or business interests can help with ‘pre-bunking’ the ‘The Big Myth’ that only one viewpoint can hold sway.

As Oreskes and Conway conclude, ‘The big myth’s expiration date is long past due. Our futures depend on rejecting it.’

How did so many Americans come to have so much faith in markets and so little faith in government?

Oreskes and Conway open the book by identifying the starting place for ‘market fundamentalism’ in the late 19th century, as a burgeoning USA was beginning to assert its identity. ‘Market fundamentalism is a 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.’

‘The market’ became this entity, almost in its own right, that existed nebulously outside of regulation, where ‘economic freedom’ could rule and any regulation of the marketplace ‘would be the first step on a slippery slope to socialism, communism or worse.’ However, the authors suggest that, ‘”The Market” doesn’t exist outside of society, but is part of society and like society’s other parts, must be subject to law and regulation.’

In Chapter 1 then, the authors explore that expressing any type of freedom is always a balance of competing rights. They scrutinise the impact of Amendments to the Constitution and how this balance of protection of citizens could be balanced with capitalist growth. They are also at pains to emphasise the importance of the opening of the Constitution, ‘We the People of the United States’, to highlight the omission of the capitalist focus, therefore opening the question to, where, when and why, did this narrative take hold.

As Oreskes and Conway find,Americans in the early twentieth century were largely suspicious of “Big Business” and saw the government as their ally. By the later decades of the century, this had flipped.’ It is true to note as well that Governments tend not to spend their financial budgets on advertising and promoting their own narratives and ideology, whereas companies and businesses ringfence large amounts of their budgets for the promotion of a free market economy. It is also true to stress the importance of the ‘Tripod of Freedom’, which emerged as a claim that free enterprise was an inseparable part of American identity. The myth of the Tripod of Freedom, the claim that America was founded on three basic, interdependent principles: representative democracy, political freedom and free enterprise. Free enterprise appears in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the constitution.’

Experts for hire

Oreskes and Conway begin by exploring how this narrative started to change in the opening decades of the 20th century and how the electrical industry, and more particularly the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which ‘insisted that the federal government should stay out of its way and not regulate the workplace.’ The power of industry and financial backing of industry for advertising campaigns and favourable editorials alongside industry backed ‘studies’ that demonstrated whatever the industry wanted them to demonstrate began to reach hundreds of thousands of consumers. Almost 100 years on, we can see the same playbook being used by fossil fuel companies and advocates to delay the full emergence of the renewable energy industry. Language began to be artfully used to create opposites. That ‘liberal’ now meant ‘anti-American’, or ‘anti-whatever convenient label’ that could be used, including the dreaded label of being a ‘socialist’, forgetting perhaps the Constitution words, ‘to promote the general welfare.’. These campaigns from the National Electric Light Association as well, ‘foreshadowed later efforts by the tobacco industry to fight the facts about their products and influence scientific researchers and educators to promote their point of view.’ And ‘helped to construct a key plank in the platform of American market fundamentalism and a key factor in the big myth of the Free Market.

This messaging came to a crashing halt on October 29, 1929, when the New York Stock Exchange collapsed and the scale of market failure could be clearly evidenced.

Business regroups

Despite the New Deal offering security, business interests regrouped and spent the decade following creating ‘the proposition that any compromise to economic freedom would inevitably lead to despotism- and that political and economic freedom were therefore inseparable- would become one of the fundamental tenets of market fundamentalism’s big myths… Freedom would be defined above all as economic freedom.

This created the necessary cultural semantic echo between ‘inseparable’ and ‘indivisible’- which, in turn, meant that business could now attack any government activity into the marketplace as a threat to freedom, a threat to the American way of life.’ With radio being hugely important as a means of communication and reaching over 80% of American families by the end of the 1930s, a new platform for propaganda could be used continuously and invisibly. ‘Capitalism was about freedom, NAM would insist, and the survival of American democracy was at stake.’

Modes of communication

Oreskes and Conway analyse in depth popular media of the following decades- evaluating the impact the binary rhetoric that was promoted by religious Christian Libertarians of Government or God- or ‘You are either with us, or against us,’ had in promoting absolutes. Absolutes which led to the American people finding it difficult to have constructive conversations about identity, or how they had been led astray.

Influential film directors and writers, from Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life, to Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books began to counter and promote the interests of business respectively. ‘During the 1940s and ‘50s, libertarian moviemakers and their allies in business deployed censorship, intimidation, and overt propaganda to change the tone of America’s screens and disseminate the myth of the free market.’

‘The era of Big government is over.’

As the final decades of the 20th century arrived, the messaging of the Big Myth of the ‘magic of the marketplace’ was completed by Ronald Reagan.In the 1920s, Americans had hated “Big Business”; Reagan would persuade us to hate “Big Government.” Reagan’s repeated insistence of ‘the magic of the marketplace’- in reality, an empty clichéd phrase- became his catch phrase. A repeated message repeated daily and with the backing of industry can prove very effective at convincing people not to look beyond the words and look for the evidence instead- even when the public are being negatively impacted directly. This was a strategy that Donald Trump would later employ with deadly consequences during both his presidential campaign and during the Covid pandemic.

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”- Ronald Reagan.

In 1996, when Bill Clinton declared “the era of Big Government is over”, business must have rejoiced. What is often forgotten though is that ‘Clinton governed from the center-left, defending Social Security and Medicare.’

Oreskes and Conway begin to conclude ‘The Big Myth’ by drawing attention to the continued market failures to regulate itself, by highlighting the Enron implosion and by exploring the lack of business support for climate action, which hinders business progress.

‘The fossil fuel industry’s economic interests in preventing climate action have always been obvious; less understood is how it camouflaged those interests. No one ever said “I am denying climate change to protect corporate profits.” They said that they were protecting jobs, protecting the economy, and protecting free markets from government “encroachment”. They said they were fighting for capitalism and freedom.’

The response to the Covid pandemic is also highlighted as a market failure, as the authors comment that, ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how expensive overreliance on the “free” market can be.’ They also conclude that ‘the Covid-19 crisis has made crystal clear why some problems demand substantive governmental solutions, and why many of them can’t just be temporary.’

The era of ‘Big Business’ is over?

The authors caution that a century of programming and conditioning that loving the free market and loathing of Government ‘is not easily undone.’ They warn that‘The Big Myth has a tenacious hold. Polls show that in many domains. Americans trust the private sector more that they trust “The Government.” This continued hostility and lack of trust allows for the rhetoric that any Government can’t be trusted, even in the face of existential threats like climate change. The true costs of the ‘free’ market may be becoming more visible, despite business interests to the contrary.

‘Five hundred thousand dead from opioids, over a million dead from Covid-19, massive inequality, rampant anxiety and unhappiness, and the well-being of us all threatened by climate change: these are the true costs of the “free” market.’

As Oreskes and Conway conclude,

‘Government is not the solution to all our problems, but it is the solution to many of our biggest ones.’


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