The year ‘laissez-faire’ became profane

Pity the poor priests of laissez-faire (the French phrase associated with the advocates of free market capitalism). They want to name a building at the University of Chicago after Milton Friedman. Milton was teaching there in 1976 when he won the Nobel Prize in economics. But 100 faculty members have signed a petition objecting. One of the 100, Bruce Lincoln told the press: “He was the darling of the Reaganite revolution and the American right … He was a scathing critic of the state playing a role of any importance … It’s now a whole lot more obvious to everyone that [Mr. Friedman] got us into some problems and that he didn’t have the final solution to everything that makes an economy work.”[1] That’s an understatement. The financial markets are breathing thanks only to a $3 trillion injection of public funds.[2] Laissez-faire has never been so discredited.

Others are figuring this out. We saw this in the run-up to the October 14 vote in Canada’s federal election. The Bloc Québécois were expected to lose a fair number of seats when Stephen Harper launched his 2008 bid for a majority. But they roared back into contention, ending up with 50 seats, just one shy of their 2006 result. There were several reasons for this comeback. The Tories alienated Quebec voters with a reactionary attack on culture, and an even more reactionary attack on youth “criminals.” But Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, before any other leader, figured out that with the crisis wracking financial markets, “free-market” had become a swear word.

• During the French language leaders’ debate October 1, Duceppe charged that “Mr. Harper is a laissez-faire-ist like Mr. Bush and we see the disaster happening in the United States now.”[3]

• October 6, Duceppe demanding a recall of Parliament to debate the economic crisis said that Harper had no clue how to fix the broken economy “It is still the economic laissez-faire of George W. Bush.”[4]

• In Trois Rivières, October 7 he took it further. “With his economic philosophy, Harper is the worst thing that could happen to Quebec. It’s laissez faire … It is exactly like (George W.) Bush’s Republican policies and we see the results today.”[5]

• A week after the election, responding to Tories injecting money into Canada’s banking system, Duceppe said: “I think he [Harper] had to do that, but this is not enough. At first they said there was no problem at all. It was the George Bush laissez-faire (approach), and that was a huge error, with the results that we are seeing now.”[6]

What a sea-change. Starting with the entire Reagan-Thatcher years, and continuing during the so-called “neo-liberal revolution,” we were told that the state had caused all our problems. We were told that the market would cure our ills. We were told that if you let the free market do its work, incomes for the rich would go way up, but incomes for the rest of us would follow, even if at a slower pace. Wealth would trickle down, and incomes would trickle up. Language was easy. State, bad; market, good. “Laissez-faire” – the great slogan of Adam Smith, was a badge to be worn with pride.

Now, just one little $3-trillion bailout later, everyone is quietly hiding those badges. Laissez-faire has become a swear word.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Cited in Paul Waldie, “He inspired Reagan’s revolution,” The Globe and Mail Report on Business, October 22, 2008, p. B1
[2] According to Barry Ritholtz, cited in Alice Gomstyn, “Bailout Critic: Plan Could Cost $3 Trillion,” ABC NEWS Business Unit, Oct. 13, 2008
[3] “Harper targeted on economy, crime in French debate,”, Oct. 2, 2008
[4] Rhéal Séguin, “Duceppe wants Parliament recalled over economy,” The Globe and Mail, Oct. 6, 2008
[5] “Harper improvising on economy, Duceppe charges,” The Gazette, Oct. 7, 2008
[6] “Ottawa has linguistic double standard: Duceppe,” The Gazette, October 22, 2008