The Market Myth

Commentary
October 26, 2005By Michael Leachman

October, 2005

For years, the favorite myth of America’s political and business leadership has been that the private marketplace operates like a force of nature. Hurricane Katrina - an actual force of nature - lays bare that this myth is inadequate, arrogant, and dangerous.

According to this myth, the market is perfect. It is a natural and benevolent force that rewards those who make productive choices. Failure is the result of individual character flaws or government intervention, or both.

Here’s why that’s inadequate: the market is a human, not divine, creation. Market outcomes depend on the health of human institutions and relationships, especially the capacity of our government to maintain fairness and protect opportunity for all. How can the market deliver fair and democratic results if corporate culture is corrupted by self-indulgence and short-term profits? If politicians hand out no-bid contracts and other special favors to the most generous contributors? If trust-fund kids inherit unimaginable power to influence events? If a large share of the population is blocked from opportunity in dead-end jobs and isolated neighborhoods? The market myth ignores power, corruption, privilege, and greed.

When Americans believe the market myth, who benefits the most? It is those individuals who have collected the most wealth. That’s what makes the market myth arrogant. It is self-serving and pompous for the country’s political and economic elite - Republicans and Democrats alike - to imply that they achieved their high status simply through wiser-than-thou choices in life.

You don’t often hear powerful people baldly express such arrogance. They don’t have to, as long as ordinary Americans believe the market myth. Because the myth tells us that individual character alone determines economic success or failure, it obscures the benefits of privilege and power. And that’s exactly what the peddlers of the market myth want - for their privilege and power to be hidden.

They have been largely successful, and that’s dangerous. On a day-to-day basis we can’t easily see that power is shifting away from the middle and lower classes, accumulating heavily at the very top. The majority of Americans don’t often notice that the bloated super-rich are picking our pockets and dominating our political systems. We may notice that we are not succeeding like those at the top, but we tend to blame ourselves for lacking the discipline, brains, or character that the icons of wealth seem to have.

Those spreading the market myth have been mostly successful in keeping people from seeing what’s really happening. Hurricane Katrina, however, forced us to look. There, suddenly, calling out to us from our television screens were human beings - fellow Americans - begging us to look. “Help me!” they cried. “Can’t you see what’s happening?”

Our country’s future depends on us seeing what’s happening, not just to the poor of New Orleans, but to the middle and lower classes of America, as well. Our nation works best when it protects opportunities for all Americans, in part by limiting the power and influence of the very few at the top. That’s when the market is most free. Only then can we all participate fully and fairly in the economy and in the country’s political decision-making processes.

Our nation has no choice in whether we will face more hurricanes, but we do have a choice in whether we will face up to the extraordinary upward shift in power. The first step is seeing through the market myth.


Michael Leachman is a policy analyst at the Oregon Center for Public Policy, which uses research and analysis to advance policies and practices that improve the economic and social opportunities all Oregonians. He can be reached at mleachman(at)ocpp.org, at P.O. Box 7, Silverton, OR 97381, or by phone at 503-873-1201.

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