Did you scratch your head when the GOP House, faced with a deteriorating economy, decided to concentrate their energies on light bulb standards a few weeks ago? Did this suggest nothing so much as the crankiness of some of your elderly family members who curse as they try to figure out how to circumvent car seat belts, wax furious when they can’t smoke in restaurants, and carry on about the fools who buy “five-dollar” cups of coffee? The effort to repeal efficiency standards for light bulbs certainly speaks to some of the same impulses, but it is also far more complicated.
The GOP cited government overreach and free market principles as their motivation, and, for good measure, claimed that the more efficient light-bulbs would be “much” more expensive and would pollute land-fills with mercury. Advocates of the more efficient new standards pointed out that they would save purchasers as much as $85 a year and decrease demand for electricity – eliminating, by one count, need for as many as 33 large power plants if fully implemented. While current compact florescent and LED light bulbs must be recycled carefully, halogen incandescents, which are emerging as one of the replacements for the “traditional” incandescent light bulb, are mercury free.
Practical arguments, even when they promote the common good, though, carry little weight with the GOP, regardless of their willingness to pose as pragmatists from time to time. Their real concern was and is with the primacy of the free market, and is essentially religious in nature. The evocation of the free market and its corollary, free choice (at least as far commercial goods go), is essentially a shibboleth that marks the practicioners of Market Fundamentalism
As U.C. Davis sociologist, Fred Block has observed:
Market Fundamentalism is a quasi-religious faith that unregulated markets will somehow always produce the best possible results. It rests on the idea that markets are natural and government regulations are artificial.
Similar to other fundamentalisms, it paints the world only in black and white. …
Block further asserts that free market fundamentalism was initially:
… embraced by the right wing in the United States in the 1970’s to help paper over divisions between its different constituencies. Market Fundamentalism appeals to large sections of the business community for reasons that are mostly cynical. While businesses lobby continually for different kinds of government assistance-contracts, subsidies, support in foreign markets, protection of their “property” rights, and so on– they switch to Market Fundamentalism when they want to oppose taxes, regulations, and other government measures that constrain their behavior. Embracing Market Fundamentalism helps them get the benefits of government assistance without having to pay the costs.
At the same time, Market Fundamentalism is deeply appealing to social and religious conservatives. They are reassured by its moral absolutism and its deep hostility to government social programs …
It is no coincidence that the two Missourians who signed on to cosponsor the repeal bill were Todd Akin (R-2) and Vicky “Running God’s Way” Hartzler (R-4), the two Missouri GOP congress people who are most identified with right-wing religious fundamentalism. It is Market Fundamentalism that binds corporate shills like Roy Blunt, who co-sponsored legislation to roll back the efficiency standards in the Senate earlier this year, to religious crackpots like Akin and Hartzler.
Although, as in Senator Blunt’s case, it may be gilded with hard currency for campaign chests, it is Market Fundamentalism that is the real coin that insures that the entire GOP contingent jumps to the tune of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), or that gives the Koch brothers, Rex Sinquefield and other rich free market advocates leeway to set the GOP’s legislative agenda. Remember Sinquefield’s Fair Tax and its fawning legislative supporters? Or take a look at the role ALEC has played in setting the agenda in Jefferson City. For that matter – just think about the aversion to raising taxes for the wealthy and the corporations that nearly brought the nation’s economy to the chopping block last week.
Unfortunately for most of us, Market Fundamentalism is a harsh religion with few winners and lots of losers. When it was called Social Darwinism back in the last half of the 19th century, it made life hard for most Americans – and, when we consider the the indices describing the downward trajectory of the American middle class, it looks like this new, old religion will soon have the same effect in the present day – the rich will get richer and the rest of us will get poorer. To quote Block once again:
The reality is that market exchange can serve the common good, but only when individuals obey moral injunctions and legal rules. When people cheat their customers, sabotage their competitors, avoid paying taxes, and ignore environmental rules, there is no Invisible Hand that blesses these transactions. Market Fundamentalism hides the fundamental reality that actual markets work because of a structure of legal and moral constraints that people have constructed over the decades to avert the disasters produced by excessive greed. Market Fundamentalism is so dangerous because it strips away all of the mechanisms and moral understandings that protect us from runaway and unregulated markets.