In the City Journal, I have reviewed Jacob Soll’s new book, Free Market: The History of an Idea.
Books arguing that “free market thought fails to account for periodic and devastating market failure,” or claiming that Milton Friedman stood for “libertarian corporate social-Darwinism” and rebuking him for his supposed affinity for Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, are not in short supply. That modern free-market economists were “crusading Cold War warriors with little patience for nuance or for contradictions in their own thought” is a ritornello of many scholars. …
Yet Jacob Soll is smarter than his many competitors. His Free Market: The History of an Idea starts with Cicero and doesn’t get to Friedman until page 250. Soll enlists the wisdom of the ancients and 2,000 years of history in his battle—the enemy being, in this case, the idea of a deregulated economy, in which the government is severely limited. Soll refrains from using pejoratives like “neo-liberalism” and refers instead to the “free market.” Such chivalry—calling his adversaries what they would like to be called—is commendable. Still, a clearer definition of “free-market thought” and an explanation for his use of this expression would have been helpful in a broadside against individualism or capitalism.
Soll is certainly more learned (and more interesting, when he speaks of things he actually studied and pondered) than your average critic of “neoliberalism” and, thank God, doesn’t use that word. Still the book is disappointing. Barton Swaim wrote a powerful review for the Wall Street Journal, a few days ago. Professor Soll replied to that explaining that “my critiques of free-market thinkers aren’t made in bad faith. I admire Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and treasure individual liberties and economic freedoms. I simply remain perplexed that subsequent leaders dedicated to such ideas supported alliances with segregationists, whose ideas were the stark opposite of universal libertarianism”.
I did not touch the point of that juxtaposition in my review, thinking that was just derivative, in Soll’s work, from his wider worldview. Note that even in Swaim’s excellent article this is merely tangential, whereas he aptly points out that “for Mr. Soll’s book to work—and this is true of many such books by economists, pundits and historians of the political left—he has to pretend that the free marketeers have basically run the show for the past 70 years”. So, Soll’s reply (though of course circumscribed by the needs of brevity) focuses on scoring a rhetorical point rather than addressing a substantial issue. It didn’t make me think higher of him .