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Market Urbanism = Neoliberal Urbanism

Juvenile free-market rhetoric dresses up for its municipal edition.

Published onSep 24, 2019
Market Urbanism = Neoliberal Urbanism

I wrote recently about my discovery of the rhetoric of economics. Since then, I’ve surveyed various work in the field. There isn’t a considerable body of work on the rhetoric of economics, as far as I’ve found. It seems, especially when coming from economists-by-training, to mostly consist of misunderstandings of what rhetoric, as a discipline, is and failed attempts to use it to undergird their free market assertions.

Deirdre (then-Donald) McCloskey, a University of Chicago economist who moved to Iowa State University (home of the famous writers’ workshop), is considered to have triggered the most recent exploration of the rhetoric of economics in the 1980s.

In one essay, she argues that economists should care about rhetoric because it will better help them criticize their own fields (and, one assumes, beliefs):

The rhetorical tradition is thick and rich and nourishing. It sustains the life of the mind better. It gives us more true things to say about economic science, more analogies to draw on, more insights into why we agree or disagree. An uncriticized science is not worth having. As a place from which to articulate an economic criticism, humanism works better than modernism.1

It’s interesting that she refers to “economic science.” The essay that triggered this most recent explosion in economic rhetorical studies seemed to explicitly take her fellow economists to task for claiming to be a natural science.

She also suggests studying rhetoric could lead economists to become better readers. This may be true. I suppose they could start with history.

You can say, “But all things being equal . . .” and that’s useful for a thought experiment, but when are all things equal in reality?

Free marketers and libertarians continue to practice the same rhetorical strategies under the guise of “market urbanism” in the cities facing housing affordability crises. Here’s a random example of this that appeared on my Facebook feed last night:

Aune, James Arnt. Selling the Free Market: the Rhetoric of Economic Correctness. Guilford, 2002.

“The puzzling thing about this apparent triumph of free-market arguments in politics and economics is how remarkably unsuccessful the application of radical free-market policies has actually been.” (1)

“The right has been very successful in promoting the myth of a “political correctness” movement (that supposedly erases all distinctions between groups, lest anyone be “offended”), so it is now necessary to communicate to the public the right’s promotion of “economic correctness” – at the expenses of families, jobs, neighborhoods, and the traditional “liberal arts” education. (4-5)

“Libertarianism is defined by its obsessive emphasis on the market as a solution to all human problems.” (6)

Market urbanism might be said to be obsessed with the abolition of zoning regulations as the solution to all housing affordability problems. (Unless it’s one – height restrictions, say – with which they agree.)

“Unfortunately, much of the agenda of the postmodernist academic left is quite congenial to libertarianism. Postmodernists and libertarians appeal to the same audience of highly educated young people, especially those in technology- and culture-related enterprises.” (8)

“However useful the economic analysis of human behavior may be in some settings, we have good reason to believe that it may be misleading in guiding public policy.” (24)

Perversity thesis, futility thesis,

“[E]conomics is above all a way of thinking, one that enables us to tell coherent and useful stories about the world.” [29]

“The rhetorical appeal of Alston’s cautionary tales is that of “economic” analysis generally. It reduces social complexity to a few simple principles: the inexorable law of supply and demand, the perfidiousness of government intervention, the glorious and open future promised by the elimination of government intervention. It is also appealing to intellectuals because it relies on irony as a mode of explanation: human actions may have perverse effects, especially in case of social engineering. Using the topos (theme) of perverse effects enables the shrewd economist to wave away a with a world-weary look any effort at interfering with the market. This makes the economist appear to have both worldly wisdom and a sense of humor . . .” (31)

“[T]here is a deep sense in which radical libertarianism requires antidemocratic measures – a dictator of the bourgeoisie – to implement its proposals in the teeth of popular resistance.” (33)

“These arguments are styled in a “realistic” way. They reflect a worldview that is pleased with itself for “seeing through” the pretensions of poets, dreamers, and romantics. It is not difficult to imagine the right set of gestures for performing these utterances: the controlled, even vocal tone; the ironic shrug; the relaxed physical posture (perhaps accompanied by a few puffs on a pipe).” (40)

“A serious acceptance of the economic realist view of politics (especially as manifested in the theory of public choice) promotes a widespread cynicism that is fundamentally destructive of democratic politics.” (40)


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