The term “market fundamentalism” was popularized by George Soros in his 1998 book The Crisis of Global Capitalism and has led a lively existence ever since. It’s a great epithet, but what does it really mean to call a set of beliefs fundamentalist? Can the claim be proven? And what’s wrong with subscribing to fundamentalist beliefs?
I began thinking about these questions while studying usages of words such as “altruism” and “selfish” in everyday language. These words refer to behaviors that effect the welfare of both self and others, so I made a 2×2 table with effects on self (+ or -) as the rows and effects on others (+ or -) as the columns. I then categorized word usages by placing them in one of the boxes of my table. For example, in a letter that William James wrote to his mother asking for money, he expressed concern that she might find his request selfish–meaning that he was trying to benefit himself at the expense of her and the rest of his family. I placed this usage in the top right box (good for self, bad for others) of my table.
One might think that all usages of the word selfish would occupy the top right box and all usages of the word altruistic would occupy the bottom left box (bad for self, good for others). After all, isn’t that how the words are defined? What I found was more interesting. In Oscar Wilde’s children’s story The Selfish Giant, a giant selfishly forbids children from playing in his garden, only to discover that winter descends permanently on his domain. Only when he develops a more loving attitude toward the children does spring return. This usage of the word selfish belonged in the lower right box (bad for self, bad for others) and the redeemed giant’s behavior that counted as unselfish belonged in the upper left box (good for self, good for others). Authors who liked to think in terms of enlightened self-interest, such as Bertram Russell, spoke of selfishness as good for everyone (upper right box) and unselfishness as a form of stupidity that is bad for everyone (lower right box).
The same words occupying more than one box of my table? It seemed confusing and inconsistent until I realized that single authors tended to be very consistent. The heterogeneity existed because different authors were using the same words in different ways. A single language–English–was concealing a community of internally consistent belief systems that could be identified by taking note of how the words were being used. Fascinating.
Regardless of which words are used to configure a given belief system, it might seem that all four boxes should become occupied by at least some words. After all, life is a matter of tradeoffs. Some behaviors result in win-win situations, others in lose-lose, win-lose, or lose-win. If your view of the world doesn’t include all four possibilities, you’re not describing the real world. Win-win and lose-lose situations are no-brainers when it comes to deciding what to do. The hard decisions involve resolving the win-lose and lose-win situations.
My first insight into fundamentalism came when I coded a Hutterite epistle of faith written during the Protestant Reformation. I categorized every word and phrase indicating effects on self and others. When I was done, two boxes of my table remained empty. According to the epistle of faith, there aren’t any win-lose or lose-win situations. Life consists only of actions that are good for everyone or bad for everyone.
Surely, this was not a description of the real world, but I could still admire it as a system of beliefs for motivating action in the real world. For anyone who becomes a believer, life is a no-brainer, a simple matter of choosing win-win over lose-lose situations. The construction of the belief system was not a no-brainer, however. A lot of intelligence–or some other designing process–was required to create a system of beliefs that makes decision-making so easy for the believer.
I now had a serviceable definition of fundamentalism–a system of beliefs that alleviates serious decision-making on the part of the believer. A fundamentalist belief system is manifestly false as a factual description of the real world; otherwise the believer would be confronted with messy trade-offs. Nevertheless, a fundamentalist belief system can be highly adaptive in the real world, depending upon the actions that it motivates. It can even outcompete a more realistic belief system that leaves the believer fretting endlessly about all those messy trade-offs.
My second insight about fundamentalism came when I coded Ayn Rand’s book of essays setting forth her creed of objectivism titled The Virtue of Selfishness, along with a more obscure book titled The Art of Selfishness written by a self-help author named David Seabury. Once again, after dozens of words and phrases had been coded, written by Rand with her highbrow pretentions or Seabury in his homey style, two boxes of my table remained empty. Judging by the absence of tradeoffs, their tracts were every bit as fundamentalist as the Hutterite epistle of faith. It didn’t matter that Rand was an atheist who called herself a rationalist. She used her talents to create a belief system that becomes a no-brainer for anyone who steps into it. She even stated explicitly in one of her essays that “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.”
Of course, the fundamentalist beliefs of Rand and the Hutterites differ vastly in what they impel the believer to do. Hutterites are impelled to abandon self-will and objectivists are impelled to pursue their own interests as the highest moral virtue, but both are comforted with the certainty that everyone will benefit in the end.
It is on this basis that I can use the term market fundamentalism, not as an epithet, but as a verifiable fact. Use my 2×2 table to code the way that words such as “market” and “regulation” are used by market fundamentalists and I’ll bet you money that the win-lose and lose-win boxes will remain largely unfilled. That is a manifestly false description of the real world that eliminates the possibility of resolving the hard tradeoffs of life.
I have defined fundamentalism and provided a method for proving that a given belief system qualifies as fundamentalist. Now I must address my final question of what’s wrong with subscribing to fundamentalist beliefs. Let me praise fundamentalism before criticizing it. If we had to make reasoned decisions about each and every aspect of our lives, we would be incapacitated. Every belief system must simplify our decision-making environment, and is therefore fundamentalist, to a degree. A belief system that provides a reliable guide to human thriving without excessively taxing our brains is to be valued, even if it departs from factual realism along the way. Some people need simplifying belief systems more than others, not because they are stupid, but because they don’t have the personal and institutional resources to spend all their time cogitating or because the problems they confront aren’t the sort that more decision-making will resolve. When we think of human belief systems from an ecological and evolutionary perspective, we can recognize them as like species occupying different niches in an ecosystem. Fundamentalist belief systems thrive in some environments and are replaced by more realist belief systems in other environments. That’s why they coexist over the long term.
The same ecological and evolutionary perspective can be used to show what’s wrong with fundamentalist belief systems. Species are designed to perpetuate themselves, not to benefit the whole ecosystem. The same goes for belief systems, which can be virulent, predatory, and aggressively competitive in addition to commensal or mutualistic. When the goal is to manage human society at the “whole ecosystem” level, belief systems that are highly adaptive for their own perpetuation can be part of the problem. Fundamentalist belief systems are inherently incapable of critical self-examination. Their strength–making life a no-brainer–is also their weakness. Fundamentalists can even suffer from their own beliefs and never realize it because they are trapped within their own web of words. They remain true believers to the bitter end.
At the end of the day, the most pressing problems of modern life require an accurate description of the real world so that the inevitable tradeoffs can be managed for the common good. Fundamentalism interferes with this enterprise and needs to be recognized for what it is. Fortunately, we can go beyond epithets and prove that a given belief system counts as fundamentalist by calling attention to the absence of tradeoffs. Market fundamentalism can be as plain as the nose on your face when you know what to look for.
Resources: The reference to the academic article describing my word usage study is Wilson, D. S. (1995). Language as a community of interacting belief systems: a case study involving conduct toward self and others. Biology and Philosophy, 10, 77-97. See my chapter of Evolution for Everyone titled “Ayn Rand–Religious Zealot” for more about this study written for a general audience. Michael Shermer has also written about Rand’s fundamentalist ways in an article titled “The Unlikeliest Cult in History” and elsewhere. Finally, a 1999 Atlantic Article by Harvard Divinity professor Harvey Cox titled “The Market as God” is even more timely now than when it was written.