The State Religion
January 10, 2002
by Ernest Partridge
The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek ... bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and St. Augustine's City of God. Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, [there is] a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. But here they [are] again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets.... [The Market] is fast becoming a postmodern deity - believed in despite the evidence.
Harvey Cox: "The Market as God"
The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1999.
Thirty-seven years ago, Barry Goldwater's conservatism was found to be too extreme to be accepted by the American electorate. And yet, shortly before his death in 1998, Goldwater told John McCain that mainstream Republicans would today regard him as "too liberal."
"Conservatism" has overtaken even Barry Goldwater. Moreover, it has taken on many of the qualities of an established religion, complete with sacred texts, a priesthood, seminaries, a credo, and the condemnation of heresies. And like an evangelical religion, "conservatism" commands a faith that prevails, in the mind of the true believer, over experience, reason, and scientific proof.
(The quotation marks around "conservative" are quite deliberate, as so-called and self-described "conservatives" are in fact nothing of the kind. They are, instead, a species of anarcho-egoists, disdainful of the American tradition of democratic government, bereft of humane concern for the wretched of the Earth, and convinced that nothing will benefit the world at large as much as their personal selfish acquisition of wealth and power).
The Deity of our new state religion is, of course, "the free market" - omniscient, omnibenevolent and, with the coming globalization of the market through GATT, NAFTA, etc., omnipresent. In the new state religion, the market is faithfully believed to be omniscient, in that no amount of collective practical reason and experience - no careful and deliberate devising of means to the end of "the common good" - can approach, much less exceed, the inscrutable "wisdom of the marketplace." On all matters of common concern, it is best to "let the market decide."
The market is similarly regarded as omnibenevolent, since it is devoutly believed that the aggregate self-serving behavior (i.e., "utility maximization") by each individual is mystically transubstantiated into the best result for all. "The invisible hand works in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform."
Sacred texts: Among the holiest of "conservative" scriptures is Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, for therein is found the doctrine of "the invisible hand," which holds that the individual who "intends only his own gain" will, in the course of maximizing his satisfactions, be "led by an invisible hand to promote... the public interest." Contemporary faithful have extended this doctrine to encompass "trickle down theory" - the notion that when national wealth (produced cooperatively by all participants in the economy) is directed toward wealthy elites, benefits will "trickle down" to the advantage of the less fortunate. "The rising tide raises all boats". In the "conservative" credo, there is no converse "percolate up theory," acknowledging that the disproportionate wealth of the fortunate few is entirely dependent upon the productivity of the rest of us. Such heresy is condemned by the "priesthood" as "class warfare."
Like all holy scriptures, The Wealth of Nations is cited and interpreted selectively to suit exigent needs of the priesthood. For example, "the religious right," convinced that God is a Republican, conveniently forgets Jesus' instruction to the rich young man: "Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor ... and come and follow me." (Matthew 19:21).
Similarly, the priesthood of the Free Market, neglects to quote such observations as the following by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations:
"People of the same trade seldom meet together but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."
"Those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments."
"Our merchants and master manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits."
Also serving as "conservative" scripture is the Constitution of the United States, not for what it says but for what it omits. For example, "conservatives" like to remind us that Social Security is not mentioned in the Constitution. But then, neither are air traffic control laws, the Air Force, NASA, or the FCC, for the simple and compelling reason that the founding fathers failed to anticipate air and space travel, and were totally unaware of the broadcast spectrum. We also hear from the "conservatives" that the phrase "separation of Church and State" does not appear in the Constitution. Never mind that this phrase is an accurate paraphrase of the "non-establishment clause" of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." In the "conservative" religion, the Constitution is sacred text: "if it isn't in the Constitution, verbatim, it's unconstitutional."
The Seminaries are such "conservative" "think tanks" as the American Enterprise Institute, The Hudson Institute, The Heritage Foundation, The Competitive Enterprise Institute, The Cato Institute, among others. Strange to say, most of these are located within that inner circle of Hell, the Washington Beltway, where they enjoy convenient access to centers of power and the national media. There are also a few academic seminaries (usually centered in Departments of Economics and a few Schools of Law), the most prominent of which is at the University of Chicago. However, universities are generally much less hospitable to market theologians than "think tanks," for academic institutions, due to their quaint adherence to principles of open and critical debate (dare we say "the marketplace of ideas"?), have the impiety to subject sacred doctrine to rational inquiry, and to test it against experience in "the real world."
In contrast, dissent within the "conservative" think tanks is about as conspicuous as it is within the College of Cardinals. This explains why, when a Fellow of (say) The American Enterprise Institute is introduced on a Sunday TV panel show, we have a pretty good idea of where he stands, even before he opens his mouth to recite the doctrine. In short, "think tanks" were invented to spare the market theologians the discomfort of defending their doctrines to such educated and critically astute opponents as one is likely to encounter at a university.
The Priesthood, also known as "pundits," labor comfortably and prosperously in the mass media which, in turn, have largely become wholly owned and controlled subsidiaries of ultimate sponsors of The Mother Church of the Market (e.g., such sponsors as the Fortune 500 and media conglomerates such as Time-Warner-AOL-Everything). The Priests come to their calling from many professions - business management, the law, journalism and even, on occasions, from the universities. However, upon joining the priesthood, scholarship is subordinated to apologetics. Like advertisers, lawyers and (of course) preachers, and unlike scholars and scientists, it is the task of the market priests, not to search for "the truth" through established methods of scholarly inquiry (after all, they are convinced that they possess the truth). Instead, their task is to preach "the truth" to the unbelievers, by any effective mode of persuasion in their well-practiced repertory of public relations and advertising devices.
The Missionaries: In the United States, the primary missionary effort takes place through the aforementioned mass media. Beyond our shores, the market missionaries behave very much like the Christian missionaries that followed the European empire-builders into the "heathen regions" of Africa and Asia. Possessing a pure and perfect gospel which, they confidently believe, is adaptable intact into any culture, the missionaries are unburdened by any responsibility to understand, much less respect, the history and culture of those "lesser breeds without the law" whom they deem to benefit with their doctrine. And if the gospel fails to "take" (as is apparently the case in post-Soviet Russia), then this is the fault, not of the market gospel, but of the people to whom it was offered. "They just were not ready."
I can testify to this personally. On a return flight from Moscow in 1991, I sat next to the President of a conservative think tank who expounded at length about what he had "told the Russians" and about "what they needed to learn" about "free enterprise market capitalism." I do not recall a word from him about what he had learned from the Russians. And, of course, he spoke to the Russians in English, having no knowledge whatever of the Russian language.
The Devil in our new national religion is the government - described by libertarian philosopher John Hospers as "the most dangerous institution known to man." It follows that Satan's minions are bureaucrats, as they go about their diabolical business of undoing the holy work of the free market, through regulation and progressive taxation. (See our "Mr. DeLay Goes to Washington.")
The Infidels and the Heretics: Prominent among the heretics are academic economists who dare to suggest that economic principles and potentialities might be constrained by physical, chemical or biotic laws - that, in Gaylord Nelson's words, "the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the natural environment." Again, I can testify personally to this attitude on the part of "neo-classical economists." When I mention to these worthies, the names of such dissenting "ecological" economists as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Kenneth Boulding, Robert Costanza and Herman Daly, I am frequently met with a look of disdain and dismissal that one might expect from geographer, hearing a flat-earth theory, or from a biologist encountering a "creationist." What I rarely hear from the defenders of the neo-classical faith is a reasoned rebuttal. (See my "Twentieth Century Alchemy.")
The most detested of the infidels are the liberals - usually designated by hyphenated appendages, e.g., "radical-liberals," "bleeding-heart-liberals." To the true-believer "conservatives," it is not enough that the infidel-liberals be defeated in political contests, they must be utterly destroyed. Thus the inquisition of Bill and Hillary Clinton, carried on by the Grand Inquisitor, Kenneth Starr. Under Starr's successor, the new Solicitor General Theodore Olson, we may be assured that the no-quarter holy war against the infidel-liberals will continue.
The Triumph of Faith over Reason and Evidence: We have an abundance of examples of this quasi-religious aspect of "conservatism." Unconstrained market forces are leading the US and the world to an ever-increasing consumption of fossil fuels - which is, as we know, the policy of the Bush administration. And yet over two-thousand scientists have concluded, in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that such a policy will surely lead to a catastrophic alteration of the global climate. Not to worry, saith our President-Select, these conclusions are based on "unsound science." He does not elaborate: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews, 11:1).
Such faith is unbudged by plain experience. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan persuaded Congress that "supply side economics" (i.e., massive tax cuts) would stimulate the national economy, resulting in increased federal revenues and hence a reduction of the national debt. In fact, Reagan and Bush-I tripled the national debt, and the plunged the economy into a recession. Then Clinton took office and abolished Reaganomics by increasing taxes on the wealthy. Prominent among the neo-classical economists who forecast that Clinton's policies would lead to certain disaster were two ex-professors of economics from Texas: Dr. Phil Gramm (Texas A&M) and Dr. Richard Armey (University of North Texas). What followed instead were eight years of uninterrupted and unprecedented economic prosperity and budget surpluses. So what does George-II propose? A return to the manifestly failed policy of "supply side economics." Thanks to Bill Clinton, we had today an opportunity to retire the national debt. But no, instead we are to direct most of that surplus to the Bush's wealthy friends, and "give back" pocket change to the rest of us. Experience be damned - this is doctrine!
When asked for a justification of market doctrine, the true believers often give us a "just-you-wait" response - what philosophers call a "post-empirical explanation." For example, when we ask the preacher why we should accept his doctrine of salvation through acceptance of Christ, he replies "you will surely find your answer when you face the Almighty in the hereafter." This response is not very convincing at time-present. Similarly, when economists such as the late Julian Simon are challenged with evidence of resource limits, they typically reply: "human ingenuity combined with economic incentive will always find a solution." Justification? "Just you wait." (For a detailed examination of Simon's "free-market optimism," see our "Perilous Optimism.")
The State Religion: Of course, "the Gospel of the Market" is not similar in all respects to the Western theistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Foremost among the differences is that The Market is not claimed to be the Creator of the universe, and is not believed to be a personal being. Moreover, most defenders of the market-gospel are (or claim to be) devout Christians. But this may, on close examination, be a rather empty adherence. Jesus of Nazareth, after all, taught an ethic of humility, compassion, poverty, and pacifism - virtues which, to put it gently, are not conspicuous in the behavior or the policies of "conservatives."
However, so-called "conservatism" displays, in many other respects, the characteristics of a dogmatic religion - and unfortunately, these are not the most useful or desirable characteristics of religious devotion. These characteristics include an inclination to punish and suppress dissenting opinions ("heresies"), and a refusal to subject fundamental doctrines to rational scrutiny, or to reassess and revise these doctrines in the light of practical experience. Supremely confident that they possess fundamental and immutable truths of human nature, economics and politics, faithful believers in market theology are remarkably innocent of intellectual curiosity and thus incapable of dealing effectively with accumulating scientific knowledge, with technological innovations, and with the flux of social, political and economic emergencies and opportunities. In the face of all these daunting issues, the "conservatives'" response is simple and unequivocal: "don't expect us to do anything about it - just let the market decide."
Pontius Pilate could not have said it better.
Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics, and a Research Philosopher at the University of California, Riverside. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly."