Neoliberals Don’t Like Free Markets, But They Want You To Think They Do

It was very frustrating to read Noam Scheiber’s profile of Jaz Brisack, the person who led the first successful union organizing drive at a Starbucks. Brisack does sound like a very impressive person and it is good to see her getting the attention her efforts warrant. However, Scheiber ruins the story by repeatedly telling readers that the neoliberals, who have dominated political debate in recent decades, want a free market. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I will start the indictment with their support of intellectual property. Government-granted patent and copyright monopolies transfer many hundred billion dollars annually from the rest of us to the top 10 percent, and especially the top one percent. Bill Gates would still be working for a living if the government didn’t threaten to arrest anyone who made copies of Microsoft software without his permission.

Then we have “free trade.” The neoliberals made it a top priority to make it as easy as possible to bring in cheap manufactured goods from developing countries. This cost millions of manufacturing jobs, and put downward pressure on the pay of noncollege educated workers more generally.

By contrast, if you talk to most neoliberals about removing the barriers that make it difficult for foreign doctors to practice in the United States, or other highly paid professionals, most suddenly get really stupid, like they don’t know what “free trade” is. Neoliberals have been happy to lower the trade barriers that protect the wages of less-educated workers, but then it comes to the barriers that support the pay of people like them, they are the most protectionist people around.

The financial sector is another example. When people buy clothes or food in most places they pay a sales tax. But that’s not the case for purchases of financial assets. Suppose we ended the special treatment for the financial sector and imposed a very modest 0.1 percent on sales of stock and other financial assets. This would radically reduce the incomes of many very rich Wall Street types, while having a minimal impact on the ability of the financial sector to carry through its productive purposes.

It is also not the free market to give Facebook and other social media behemoths Section 230 protection against defamation suits that print and broadcast outlets don’t enjoy. Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook insiders would be much poorer without this protection, but we would be moving towards a free market by taking it away.

I could go on (see Rigged [it’s free]) but the point should be clear. Neoliberal types are just fine with all sorts of government interventions that redistribute income upward. They just get upset when the government intervenes in ways that redistributes from those on top to the rest of us.

It is understandable that neoliberals would like to be seen as big advocates of the free market. After all, it sounds much better to say that you favor a free market than to see that you favor redistributing from the poor and working class to the rich and very rich.

But the neoliberals self-description is not accurate, and people like Scheiber should not be repeating it. Neoliberals need to be exposed for who they really are.

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