In September 2008, Bernard E.Harcourt of the University of Chicago (that same University of Friedman, whose Economics disciples have became known with fear and contempt throughout much of the world as the “Chicago Boys”) presented a paper at UCLA on the topic “Neoliberal Penality: The Birth of Natural Order, The Illusion of Free Markets”.
In the paper (and more recently and more comprehensively in his book “The Illusion of Free Markets”), Harcourt traces the origins and development of the “free market” and “”small government” philosophies of the Chicago School from the 18th Century Enlightenment.
But the title alone is revealing: the idea of a “natural order” underlying economics was born, not found; the notion of “free markets” creates a fiction, an illusion.
Neoliberal economics is not rocket science: not in the sense that it is simple and obvious, but in the sense that it is not science at all. The theories of Special and General Relativity are examples of science. Einstein’s theories came with proposals as to how they could be tested, and they have been tested and proven many times. If – and it’s said to be a huge if – the LHD is generating faster-than-light neutrinos then Einstein’s theories will be amended, not replaced: as Einstein’s theories supplemented Newton’s.
Some – not all – properties of gravity and light have been discovered. The “natural order” created by free markets is a man-made construct. It seems, in fact, to be anti-science: starting from a desired result (reduction in the role of government) to identify causes (the efficiency of free markets).
Whereas scientific method depends on scepticism, neoliberal economics depends on unquestioning belief. It is unsurprising that religious fundamentalism and free market fundamentalism so often drive and are driven by the same people.
Harcourt refers to “free market” thought as if it were a quasi-religion. It certainly creates the same limitations to – or deficits in – human thought and action.
Because “free markets” reveal a “natural order” they must not be interfered with. What this “natural order” is, is the best which can exist. Humans cannot improve upon it, and indeed can only make things worse by trying to regulate or replace the “free market”. This is one reason why neoliberal systems are so harsh on anyone who breaks the neoliberal logics.
The neoliberal belief system encourages hopelessness (because There Is No Alternative to neoliberal “natural order”) and it generates disillusion and despair, because no matter how bad things are,no actions or changes are permitted. Government action – human action – can only make things worse. We cannot solve the social problems neoliberal economics creates: we are not allowed to.
The fundamentalist religiosity of neoliberalism quashes scepticism and destroys critical thinking. Creationism, climate-change denial, anti-vaccination hysteria, demonisation of science, the supplanting of academic study by folk-wisdom, the transformation of education to factory production of consumers and drones: all these are manifestations of how the neoliberal hegemony is making idiots of us all.
As hopeless, constricted, uncritical consumers we cannot find or take the necessary actions to solve the problems we need to solve: putting a brake on global warming and creating sustainable, just, fair, societies to live in. We have to reject the religion of “free markets”, declare that the Emperor is not only naked but sick, take back the right to solve problems and to improve human existence. Before neoliberalism kills us all.