No Such Thing as a Free Market

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang, Bloomsbury Press.

A lot of things you’ve been told about capitalism are, at best, partial truths, and at worst, complete myths. That’s the theme of Ha-Joon Chang’s “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism,” which aims to educate the reader—in a non-technical and often lighthearted, deliberately provocative way—about how capitalism works and how it might be made to work better.

“Economics, as it has been practiced in the last three decades, has been positively harmful for most people,” writes Chang, a Myrdal Prize-winner who teaches in the faculty of economics at the University of Cambridge. He blames the global economic meltdown on the free-market ideology that has proliferated since the 1980s: “What happened to the world economy was no accident;” it happened because we have been told—and accepted—that we should put our trust in the market and get out of its way.

Each of the 23 chapters (labeled “Things”) follows the same format. Chang begins with a paragraph or two on “What they [free-market apostles] tell you” about a particular issue. Naturally, he follows with “What they don’t tell you,” and elaborates from there.

For instance, Thing 1 is: “There is no such thing as a free market.” We cannot tell whether a market is free or not in any scientific or objective way, says Chang, who notes that one person can look at a market and say it is free; another can look at it and claim there are too many regulations. And Thing 13 (“Making rich people richer does not make the rest of us richer”) takes issue with trickle-down economics: See “[e]xcessive tax cuts for the rich for what they are,” he emphasizes, “a simple upward redistribution of income.”

Chang takes care to emphasize that “this book is not an anti-capitalist manifesto,” knowing that there are some who will interpret it this way. “Being critical of free-market ideology is not the same as being against capitalism,” he writes. True to his word, in the final chapter he offers a vision of how we can shape capitalism to humane ends, prescribing eight measures, including: “[The] need to take ‘making things’ more seriously” and, “Government needs to become bigger and more active.”

“The eight principles all directly go against the received economic wisdom,” he admits, and will no doubt make many readers uncomfortable. “But unless we now abandon the principles that have failed us and that are continuing to hold us back,” he concludes, “we will meet similar [economic] disasters down the road.”