Seminar on History and Philosophy of Science

Thursday, November 29, 2018
4:00pm to 5:00pm
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Dabney Hall 110 (Treasure Room)
Historical Foundations of Free Market Fundamentalism
Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University,

Abstract: In our 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, Erik Conway and I argued that a good deal of climate change denial is rooted in free market fundamentalism: belief in the efficiency of markets and correlated skepticism over the efficiency of governance. Many climate change skeptics and deniers resist accepting the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change because it would require them to accept the reality not merely of market inefficiency, but of market failure. (Lord Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, has called climate change the "greatest and widest ranging market failure even seen.") In our new project, Conway and I explore the roots of free market fundamentalism and the development of the notion of the "Magic of the Marketplace," the idea that markets possess an almost magical ability to solve problems without government involvement. In this paper, I explore the early emergence of this construct in debates over child labor and workmen's compensation. The defense of child labor and rejection of workmen's compensation hinged not so much on the claim that markets were efficient—few people denied that child labor and industrial accidents were harmful and wasteful—but more on the worry that permitting the federal government to address them would create an even more harmful expansion of federal power. However, what began as an argument about the appropriate limits to federal power transmogrified over the next few decades into as an idealized, if not propagandistic, vision of efficient markets, enterprise capitalism, personal freedom, and the "supremacy of the individual."

For more information, please contact Fran Tise by phone at 626-395-3609 or by email at ftise@caltech.edu.