Draw the Pirate and Become a Reason-Approved “Free Market Think-Tank!”

If you thought the standards of the Famous Artists’ School (“Can You Draw the Pirate?”) on old matchbook covers were lax, wait till you see Reason magazine’s criteria for recognition as a “free market think-tank.”

The American Federation of Teachers blacklists asset managers who manage public sector employees’ defined benefit pension funds, but have contributed to organizations that advocate moving government employees into defined contribution plans (like 401ks). Reason‘s Scott Shackford (“Support the Free Market? The American Federation of Teachers Wants You to Bugger Off,” April 9) characterizes the blacklist as a war on those who “support the free market” and describes organizations that advocate defined contribution pensions as “free market think tanks.”

We hear a lot of this kind of “free market” advocacy from beltway libertarian organizations these days. “Free market reform” means, not moving social functions from the state sector to voluntary associations, but simply funneling taxpayer money through for-profit corporate intermediaries or remodeling government agencies themselves to resemble neoliberal corporate culture. So vouchers and phony “privatization” that give taxpayer funds to politically connected corporations are “free market” policies. So are public sector “reforms” that ape the recent corporate culture of union-busting, downsizing, speedups and pension looting. In short, “free market” just means it looks corporate and somebody’s making a profit — even if that profit is just the fruit of being jacked into the state.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sort of thing from Reason. Two years ago Ron Bailey ascribed Democratic criticism of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to hatred for its agenda of “free markets and limited government” — a phrase he used repeatedly (“Leftwing Pitchforkers: Kill the Limited Government Monster,s” April 26, 2012). He approvingly quoted the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Fred Smith to the effect that the attack on ALEC was “part of a broader attack by those seeking to drive all market voices from the marketplace of ideas.” Bailey also denounced, in high dudgeon, the instinct of the “morally stunted Left” to “follow the money” when in fact “[v]alues matter more than money.” And he echoed Fred Smith’s praise for CEOs “willing to stand up for free enterprise” (presumably by donating to ALEC).

Presumably by “values” and “free enterprise,” Bailey and Smith refer to the way private prison corporations use ALEC to promote harsher drug and immigration laws that — purely by coincidence — are extremely lucrative (it’s about values, not money, see?) for private prison corporations. Or the way Koch Industries uses ALEC to promote corporatist pipeline projects that never be built without wholesale state land theft via eminent domain. Or Pfizer, which uses “intellectual property” law to extort 2000% price markups from consumers for drugs under patent monopolies. Or the oil companies that use local authoritarian governments or hire death squads around the world to terrorize native populations who object to their land and resource grabs. What a big-hearted bunch these “free enterprise” CEOs are!

A real friend of free enterprise and limited government, Adam Smith, suffered from no such faux naivete about the purported “idealism” of businesspeople involved in lobbying the government. He observed, quite pointedly, that when businesspeople get together to influence the government it almost always involves some scheme by which business robs or swindles the public with help from the government. And the so-called “free market think tanks” that big business supports, and which writers like Shackford and Bailey are so fond of, are prime examples of the phenomenon.

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