Is the Market Our God?
Harvey Cox has had a remarkable career as a theologian. He became famous with The Secular City, published in 1965; and fifty years later — he is now eighty-seven — he is still writing. His latest book displays both the virtues and defects characteristic of his work. He has read widely and often makes insightful remarks; but he lacks depth and analytical rigor. The main thesis of The Market as God fails, but I do not propose to start with an account of that thesis and its problems. Rather, let us first consider something that will surprise supporters of the Mises Institute.
Cox says that he is not opposed to the capitalist market if kept in its proper place, but he contends that people wrongly worship the market as God. A religion, he says, needs a prophet, and for Cox it is Adam Smith that fills the bill for the market religion: “One has only to intone the name ‘Adam Smith’ in the vestibules of the Market God to see people fall on their knees in reverence. This is an exaggeration, but only just.” (p.142)
To counter this feature of what he views as an idolatrous religion, Cox says, “I suggest that Smith is not really the founder of modern economics, and that his standing as its saint, the patron of the unfettered free market, is also dubious.” (p.143)
Now for the surprise. Whom does Cox cite in support of his view of Smith? None other than Murray Rothbard who, Cox says, “speaks of the ‘enormous and unprecedented gap between Smith’s exalted reputation and the reality of his dubious contribution to economic thought.’” (p.143) Further, again like Rothbard, Cox stresses that Smith did not support an unlimited free market. “Can Adam Smith be considered a saint of the Market Faith, invoked as, say ‘Saint Andrew of Glasgow?”. . .To pass muster for sanctification, he would need to be free of any taint of heresy or deviation from the free-market creed. . .he just is not. He is a serial backslider.”(p.145)
Cox, it is evident, writes with verve and imagination; but how useful is his metaphor of the market as God? It is empty of cognitive content. The metaphor, along with its various extensions, such as Cox’s comparison of the efficient market hypothesis with the doctrine of Papal infallibility, serves rather as a tool enabling him to mock economic policies he dislikes.
His basic thesis, stripped of its theological window dressing, is this: “It has been my contention. . .that there is nothing essentially wrong with markets. But markets are not part of the natural order, like the changing of the seasons or gravity. They have been constructed by human beings to serve certain stipulated purposes, which in many cases they have done quite well. But in the past couple centuries markets have become bloated, and they have swelled into The Market. The result has been that they not only fail to serve their intended purpose, but they intrude on and distort other vital institutions such as the family, the arts, education, and religion.” (p.242)
In sum, the market has expanded beyond the limits Cox deems appropriate. As an example, he deplores the global uniformity of McDonald’s; though, to his credit, he does note that even this chain allows local variations of its menu. “Once the impulse to enforce uniformity sets in, it often establishes its own momentum. McDonald’s decided early on that not only should its every hamburger taste the same, its every restaurant should look the same. Searching for an appropriate iconic symbol, it introduced what are now the familiar golden arches.” (p.205)
Cox here substitutes his own preferences for the freely chosen preferences of consumers. As Mises again and again pointed out, capitalism is a system of mass production for the masses. If consumers did not desire to eat at McDonald’s, the chain would fail. Of course, Cox could reply that the matter is not one of mere preference; it is objectively wrong for the free market to be more centralized and uniform than he favors. But if Cox were to take this line, he would have to show by argument that it is right. Unfortunately, he displays in the book no capacity to make a philosophical argument. To the contrary, he simply quotes thinkers he admires, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Are the views of these thinkers true? That is a question Cox never asks. Instead, he tells us that he likes pluralism and decentralization of authority. Away with a monotheistic God who rules over all!
Cox does attempt to meet the claim of consumer sovereignty on its own ground. The consumers do not really desire the products urged on them by the rapacious market God. To the contrary, they are manipulated by advertisers to buy products of little intrinsic worth. The survival of capitalism depends on such artificially generated spending.
Cox has a remarkably strong aversion to advertisers: “But anyone who thinks twice about the ads that surround us and invade our space every day — the junk mail, the television spots, and the web displays — has come to recognize that much of what inundates us is a relentless effort to create desires where none existed before. Like the confessional of old, the process not only uncovers exiting cravings, but instills new ones.” (p.235)
Here the questionable premise is obvious. Why count only desires not influenced by persuasion as “real”? If I come to desire a product after watching a commercial, what is the matter with that? On this whole line of argument, F.A. Hayek’s “The Non Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect’” is the classic discussion.
Cox asks, “But why does the market need to create desires. . . .The cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams traces the beginning of modern advertising to the late nineteenth century when, with the invention of new technologies and the formation of monopolies, the challenge corporations faced was no longer how to increase production, but how to cope with overproduction: how could they possibly sell all the stuff they were turning out?” (p.236) The view that capitalism leads to general overproduction is a long-exploded fallacy, demolished in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill, among others.
Cox sometimes presents interesting ideas. He suggests, for example, that St. Augustine’s triumph over Pelagius in part came about through the superior financial resources of Augustine’s patrons. This is hypothesis worth exploring; but, though Cox displays a facile ability to set forward the theological issues at stake, he once more offers no real analysis of the arguments. He is much more an intellectual magpie, skilled at arousing undergraduate students, than a serious thinker.