“It’s the idea that market freedom went hand in hand with freedom in the broad sense,” explains an American economist

Naomi Oreskes is professor of history of science at the prestigious Harvard University. She published, at the end of January, The Great Myth: How Industrialists Taught Us to Hate the State and Revere the Free Marketco-written with Erik Conway published by Les Liens qui Libération.

This book tells an economic and contemporary history of the United States, the cradle of global capitalism, but which, according to the authors, was built on a great myth. The one according to which we must be wary of the government, synonymous with laws, regulations which hinder the freedom of enterprise and on the contrary, that we must trust the law of the market.

franceinfo: Explain to you how the big industrialists constructed this myth, made it flourish to the point that Americans ended up being convinced that it was one of the pillars of the American way of life. Are you convinced of this? ?

Naomi Oreskes : Exact. And what we show in this book is really a story. One hundred years of history of the economic and industrial life of the United States, these industrialists who for 100 years deliberately developed these ideas so that our governments could not regulate the market.

You write, speaking in particular of the electricity lobby, that it maintained that state intervention in economic affairs was un-American and that it infringed on freedom.

Yes that’s exactly it. And one of the things we try to explain in the book is how do we manage to make an argument that is completely denied. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were many child laborers in the United States. And the businessmen, the economic community, defended child labor, not by saying we want children to work, but by saying “If you let the government regulate the market, if the government tells people how to do it , there is an attack on freedom, it’s communism, it’s anti-American.” So in fact, it was the idea that market freedom went hand in hand with freedom in the broad sense and that it was favorable to the United States. This is the basis of their argument.

Did the myth work ?

Not at first, that is to say, at the beginning of the 20th century, most Americans did not accept this idea. So companies did everything they could to get this idea across. But it didn’t really work because the failures of capitalism were so obvious. Children worked everywhere, there were deaths, accidents, work, etc. Afterwards it was 1929, the Great Depression, the Wall Street crash.

“With the Great Depression, Americans realized that when you let a market do everything, things didn’t go well.”

The government must be present. However, manufacturers have not given up. They continued to develop this idea, including, for example, with children’s books on the radio or in Hollywood. And also they’re going to start making Ronald Reagan their spokesperson.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, he is the candidate of large private groups ?

Exactly. I think Americans don’t necessarily know how he came to power. We knew that he was a fairly mediocre actor after all, and that suddenly, lo and behold, he was governor of California, then president of the United States. But it was a deliberate strategy that made all this possible. He begins by going to work for General Electric.

“Ronald Reagan used to be a Democrat, he was pro-New Deal, and he was also president of the actors’ union.”

And all of a sudden, Ronald Reagan is against governments, he’s against unions. He has a television show, General Electric Theater, which is a very popular show. He explains, it’s very educational, how by working hard, by being determined, we will get there on our own, like adults. We don’t need the government.

What are the traces today, 40 years later of the damage caused by the construction of this myth in the daily lives of Americans? ?

This is what we show in our book, is that in fact this myth was also endorsed by the Democrats, not just the Republicans. It is in fact Bill Clinton who is responsible for the major deregulations that followed. So, deregulation of the financial sector and also telecommunications. So financial deregulation will dismantle measures that were put in place in banking terms after the Great Depression. That was going to be completely dismantled and as luck would have it, in 2008, a major financial crisis arrived. And many economists think that if there was this crisis in 2008, it is probably because we had these safeguards which were removed at that time.

Second deregulation, that of telecommunications. In recent years, we have seen numerous consolidations with a form of monopoly. And that has reduced Americans’ ability to hear diverse points of view. You have very partisan media, such as Fox News, which arrived at that time.

“We know that Fox News contributed to disinformation and they were sued for it.”

But there are still millions of Americans who listen to Fox News.

How do you see the movement, in France, of farmers who denounce free trade agreements? ?

I am not a great specialist in French agricultural policy. But what this raises is still a debate which completely relates to what we address in this book, that is to say the subject is balance. The balance between the market and the presence of public authorities and the protection of workers. And unfortunately, the scales have tipped to the wrong side in the United States, to the detriment of public health, students, farmers, employees.

And we have a final chapter, which is called “the high cost of the free market”. This is one of the last chapters of our work. In fact, we must say that we must take stock of the actual cost to people of the measures taken so that we can truly make a balanced decision.

source site-29