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Published as Chapter 1 in Accumulating Insecurity: Violence and Dispossession in the Making of Everyday Life, Shelley Feldman, Charles Geisler & Gayatri A. Menon, eds.

Beneath a libertarian surface, free market economic ideas and policies have helped rationalize the strengthening of anti-democratic moral and political fundamentalism. The triumph of market freedom has been accompanied by increasing authoritarian government control in many spheres.

This chapter explains how a two-step rhetorical move in prevailing economic ideology turns authoritarianism and austerity into the route to freedom and growth. First, free market ideology constructs the increasingly limited and bad economic choices of a declining welfare state and rising plutocracy as an opportunity for enhanced market freedom. Second, free market rhetoric identifies welfare state protections with market losers who threaten others gains, so that security seems to come from controlling rather than supporting those who are most insecure.

As with the market fundamentalism in Lochner v. New York, constrained choices can be reconstructed as free choices by masking the role of law in coercing and penalizing many peoples’ choices in the interests of privileging some interests. The ideology of market freedom contains a contradiction: if freedom comes from maximizing unconstrained self-interested gain in a harsh world of zero-sum competition, then maximizing one’s freedom can mean imposing the most constraint on others. Market winners will not be those who best make the tough choices necessary to maximize resources within given constraints, but those who create better choices for themselves by mobilizing government power to constrain others. This strategy permeates foreign policy that links military and corporate power to control global competition, and it shapes domestic policies controlling struggling workers and racialized groups through mass incarceration and the criminalization of immigration.

I connect these authoritarian systems of popular control with the analysis of welfare reform policies of the 1990s, showing how restrictions on poor mothers were rationalized as expanding their “freedom of choice” by making their power to bargain for better choices appear pathological. Finally, I explore this construction of constrained choices as free choice in recent discussions of health care reform and the recent financial market crisis. In the prevailing contemporary debates about regulating financial and health insurance markets, individual freedom appears to come from concentrating rather than democratizing power because of an implicit assumption of a natural moral and political order in which most people deserve little freedom or security. Underneath the rhetoric of free choice lies a ideology of profound choicelessness that denies the freedom and power to use law to respond to insecurity by creating better market choices rather than by constraining market losers.

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University of Georgia Press



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security, insecurity, free market, libertarian, fundamentalism, economics, choice, regulation, welfare reform, financial crisis, health insurance, health reform, financial market reform, Lochner, freedom, neoliberalism, inequality, rule of law, democracy


Law | Law and Society | Military, War, and Peace

From the Welfare State to the Militarized Market: Losing Choices, Controlling Losers