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Glorious idealism and the free market vision

By Mark Christensen - posted Monday, 23 March 2009


On April 2, our Prime Minister will be licking his lips, atop the world policy stage at the G20. Sadly, it’s likely to be a lost opportunity for Australia.

Kevin Rudd believes the global meltdown to be the greatest regulatory failure in modern history. He also claims the fall-out to be the result of an “unregulated system of extreme capitalism”. How can the market be simultaneously regulated, however ineffectively, and utterly free of government meddling?

The truth is the neoliberal ideal has yet to be put into practice. To paraphrase GK Chesterton’s lament of faltering Christianity, the free market concept has not been tried and found wanting. Rather, its half-hearted implementation has allowed for a co-mingling of ideologies, which in turn has compromised its true qualities and facilitated unfounded criticism.

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Wall Street is no microcosm of the free market. Its participants are subject to various rules, including the last great legislative saviour, Sarbanes-Oxley.

Despite its flag-waving, America is no mainstay of freedom. Founded on the belief that all men are created equal, it spent its first 90 years sanctioning slavery. Here is a nation, the alleged champion of democracy, which has so little faith in its constituents that it restricts the number of terms its president can serve.

The US is certainly a major contributor to our economic despair but it’s ridiculous to claim this is due to extremism. Its lofty aspirations concerning freedom have been consistently seduced by the well-intentioned “creative agency of government”, as Rudd fondly calls it. Indeed, it’s not difficult to believe the confusion brought about by the now institutionalised gap between rhetoric and policy reality is the primary source of the stupid decisions often emanating from corporate America.

Australia, on the other hand, has tracked consistently towards the free market vision. Though the momentum has slowed, the relatively courageous step initially taken back in the 1980s along the ideological continuum, away from central planning and towards laissez faire, still resonates. What’s missing is the noble conviction required to press on.

Ironically, our laziness is due to past success. Surely the bounty of a near-enough free market is good enough? Why upset the masses by pursuing a principle all the way, even one that’s good for them? And what’s so ghastly about our leader re-writing history and spruiking reactionary polices if it distracts - albeit momentarily - from the terrifying truth there is no policy for guaranteeing economic security?

America may be many things but it doesn’t lack hope. The goal of a truly free market remains symbolic of its glorious idealism: a like-minded community built upon personal ambition and optimism.

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In Australia, the market is simply a means to prosperity.

Such uninspiring pragmatism is at the heart of the PM’s worldview: “we cannot simply hope that individual market participants somehow magically do the right thing.”

Economic reform was originally pursued because Australia couldn’t afford to retain a closed, antiquated economy. At the time, we lacked the confidence to cast our hearts and minds upwards to the higher purpose that can be realised when buyers and sellers come together freely in the name of commerce.

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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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