11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Free Market?" R.I.P. and Good Riddance!

Finally! No longer can anyone--from Friedmanite ideologues to the lords of the Federal Reserve, to GOP hacks, to neoliberal free-traders--say the words "free market" and U.S. economy in the same sentence with a straight face. It's going to cost the American people several trillion dollars, in lost pension funds, lost home equity, and tax revenues going to rescue the greedy gamblers who masquerade by day as economic titans--but we will finally be done with a myth that has warped American politics and economics for well over a century.

Not only are there no "free markets" on Wall Street--there never have been! There have only been institutions and markets receiving varying degrees of protection from the mass of American citizens. Even the robber barons of the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s didn't work in anything resembling free markets--they had the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the U.S. Army backing them up when workers went on strike for fair wages and safer working conditions, or states passed laws to protect the general public from corporate rapacity. For the 20 years I've been teaching American history, I've tried to help students see that what they learned as "laissez-faire" was anything but--not when police, militias, and the army acted as enforcers for the richest men in the country, who declaimed endlessly on the virtues of the free market economy.

Until the last couple of weeks, the would-be masters of the universe promoted this ideology through the mainstream media, which duly repeated platitudes about the wonders of the market, the dangers of regulation, the social contributions of investment bankers and hedge fund managers, and the brainpower of the folks who who invented complex derivatives and collateralized debt obligations. Finally, we're done with all this talk, and the would-be free marketeers stand exposed as Knights of Greed, who showed their true faith in the free market by getting draggy old government to pony up replacement capital for the dough they'd already poured down the toilet.

The next time CEOs want to resist taxpayer oversight and regulation, and they talk about our need for "free markets," I hope Members of Congress, editorial writers, reporters, and public officials of all kinds will remember to burst out laughing, and show them the door.