In City Journal, I reviewed Jacob Soule’s new book, The Free Market: History of a Concept.
There is no shortage of books claiming that “free market thinking fails to account for periodic and catastrophic market failures” or claiming that Milton Friedman stood for “libertarian corporate social-Darwinism” and chastising him for his supposed affinity with Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. That modern free-market economists were “Cold War warriors crusading with little patience for the contradictions of their own thinking” is a ritornello of many scholars. …
Yet Jacob Soule is smarter than many of his competitors. his The Free Market: History of a Concept Begins with Cicero and does not reach Friedman until page 250. Sol enlists the wisdom of the ancients and 2,000 years of history in his battle—the enemy being, in this case, the concept of an unregulated economy, where government is severely limited. Sol refrains from using pejoratives like “neo-liberalism” and instead refers to “free markets”. This kind of heroism—calling his opponents what they want to be called—is admirable. Nevertheless, a clear definition of “free-market thinking” and an explanation for its use of the expression would be helpful in a broad sense against individualism or capitalism.
Soule is certainly more learned than your average critic of “neoliberalism” (and more interesting, when he talks about things he’s actually studied and thought about) and, thank God, doesn’t use that term. Yet the book is disappointing. Barton Swame wrote a strong review for it The Wall Street Journal, a few days ago. Professor Saul responded by explaining that “my criticism of free-market thinkers is not made in bad faith. I admire Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and value individual liberty and economic freedom. I am simply perplexed that the latter’s leaders are such advocated alliances with separatists devoted to ideas whose ideas were diametrically opposed to universal libertarianism”.
I didn’t touch on that point of juxtaposition in my review, thinking it was rooted in Soule’s work, his broader worldview. Note that this is also merely tangential in Swaim’s excellent article, where he rightly points out that “for Mr. Soule’s book to work—and this is true of many books by politicians, pundits, and historians of the political left—he has to pretend that free marketers have basically run the show for the past 70 years. Running”. So, Sol’s answer (though certainly bounded by the need for brevity) focuses on scoring a rhetorical point rather than addressing a substantive issue. It didn’t make me think highly of him.