An acquaintance and I recently made a deal: We picked out a book for each other to read to challenge our existing beliefs.

He is a hard-working person, a family man, a veteran, a Christian. He supports the “right” of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos to hoard $120 billion in wealth. So for him I picked “Pity The Billionaire,” by Thomas Frank.

For me, he picked “Economics in One Lesson,” by Henry Hazlitt.

I’ve read this sort of thing before. These books lean heavily on cyclical reasoning: growing the economy is good because economists say so, and here’s how to make the economy grow, which is a good thing, because economists say so. They assume that anything that grows the economy is good, and anything that doesn’t is bad.

The economy is the only thing considered. One-trick ponies like Hazlitt only seem to apply their intellect to economics. He says we need an economy that works for everyone, and we should consider consequences, but when you’ve made your mind up already that the economy must grow, everything else just gets in the way of the ultimate goal.

In this way of thinking, business owners are almighty — these economists act like no other position exists —and no one should stand in the way of them playing the free-market game by making more money and gaining more power and wealth, which they tell us will “trickle down” to the rest of us.

The often-outdated text was first published in 1946. One can only guess what he’d say about the climate crisis; I suspect he would reject the science behind human-caused climate change because it would eventually interfere with economic growth, and we couldn’t possibly do that. If we were to consider what endless economic growth within a finite planet looks like, we’d have changed our ways long ago, but economists value the global economy far more than they value people, the planet or happiness.

For a long time I never understood how Evangelical types could move from the inclusive socialist teachings of Jesus to the individualism of “greed is good,” free-market economics, but it finally made sense to me. According to right-wingers, it’s important that the magic of the free market, not societies and governments, dictate a person’s health and well-being.

This sort of dogmatism has helped make clear how Christianity, despite fundamentally being nothing like capitalism, could translate so well into a separate, albeit entirely unrelated, dogmatic belief system. The invisible “God” has simply been replaced with the invisible hand — the absurd notion that the magic of the free market along with the “rational consumer” can somehow guarantee a just and equitable world.

It’s pure lunacy, and that’s assuming the intentions of this misguided worldview are even good in the first place. “Real market worth” is used in the same context in economics books as “Allah says” in the Quran or “God says” in the Bible. Even if interpreted morally, these are myths told by humans, not unquestionable laws of nature.

The truth is, in dealing with the climate crisis, the income gap, homelessness, or health care, there is nothing to produce and no rational consumer to “let the market decide” our way out of these problems. Unless the people demand the government intervene, green energy will always be “too expensive,” the income gap will be “just the way it is,” nothing could be produced and then purchased by the phantom “rational consumer” to alleviate homelessness, and we’ll “never be able to afford” universal health care.

Waiting for the magic of the free market to fix these problems is akin to waiting for thoughts and prayers to solve gun violence. Economic growth too often occurs specifically at the expense of the environment, workers, the homeless, and the sick, which is problematic if you believe economic growth is the only important thing. Institutions try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution. Because entities which stand to profit from this system also own the political process and information cycle, we’re stuck in this rut until we can get more people to wake up.

It would be foolish to deny that capitalism isn’t the best option if the goal is to simply grow the economy. The system has afforded progress.

But the ugly side of this experiment is emerging, primarily with the climate and class politics. The fact working people, young people, or parents subscribe to this inherently self-loathing, destructive ideology is a shame. We must change public consciousness to begin looking out for one another, preserving our environment, and within this wealthy country guaranteeing everyone a decent life opposed to endless peddling of free-market magic, individualism, and “bootstraps” rhetoric.

Work by Hazlitt, and other economists he inspired, exists solely to move power and wealth from the many hands of the public sector to the few hands in the private sector. We must demand better.

Sam Shain, a teacher and musician, lives in Hallowell.


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