Summary: This is a page essay that describes market liberalism (otherwise known as libertarian economics) from the point of view of Al Gore. It is supposed to be part of an imaginary “new edition” of his extensive treatise on ecology and government, Earth in the Balance. It can also stand on its own as an opinion paper about environmental abuses by modern industry, and the worth of government regulation.

In recent years, Western societies have begun to reconsider and reevaluate the experiments in social-welfare provision that had seemed to hold such promise in the postwar era. This process was accelerated by the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, a development which discredited socialism generally and left Western liberalism and free-market economic institutions as the most prominent remaining paradigm for the organization of modern societies. Today, trends toward freedom in international trade and toward the privatization of some of the functions previously performed by government may be taken as evidence of the increasing influence of marketoriented liberalism. However, this should not be seen as a sign that freedoms are increasing for the many. Market liberalism can be accurately described as rampant libertarianism in sheep’s clothing. It is a profoundly unbalanced way of running a capitalist economy, and one which I sincerely hope will reconsider itself in light of future generations.

Social provisions have been part of government since the Renaissance in Europe, and even further back in medieval China and India, where large public- works projects were planned and carried out with huge governmental effort. In the US, social programs such as welfare, Medicare, and Social Security are falling further and further into disrepair with every Republican short-term solution tax break. These programs are important in exactly the same way that the continued health of the environment is important. They provide renewed hope for future generations, and ensure a measure of continued health and well-being for the current generation. Governmental protection of the environment is one way to preserve the future for global humanity; properly providing for its citizens’ basic needs is another.

The fall of the USSR signaled to most of us that socialism, cruel and unwieldy in its implementation, was going to be chaotic and unpredictable in its disintegration. The extreme free-market capitalism of the new Russian states is alarming in its disregard for the natural resources that were only barely preserved under communism. These are extremes that the US must take care not to fall into, although we are in little danger of either. The hoarding, greedy, antisocial character of these new capitalisms is a disturbingly familiar scene in modern corporate America, where large companies rush to grab a share of the market as quickly as possible, often without concern for the effects of their manufacturing, or the costs of their customers’ consumption. In the last chapter, I detailed the inadequacy of Classical Theory economics to deal with the realities of an economy that is literally toxic, dumping millions of gallons of waste into water sources that we would, as businesspeople, be better off preserving. There can be no cost-benefit analysis of the environment until it is established that the proper time frame to look at is half a century or more; shorter views, or views that do not consider the preservation of the environment at all, are useless at best, and bald-faced hypocrisy at worst.

Market liberalism has included the further privatization of healthcare and subsequent increases in insurance and hospital fees. It has also given free rein to reckless consumerism, a habit of which the affluent nations of the world must rid themselves if they want to remain ecologically solvent in the coming decades. This thinly-veiled libertarian philosophy would have government step out of the business sector almost altogether. Disregarding for a moment the intense and anachronistic labor battles that would ensue, the environmental repercussions would be beyond severe. If left to their own devices, it is hardly the case that polluters would regulate themselves adequately. This is apparent to anyone who knows their economic history. Britain in the 1910s and ‘20s, and even since the 1850s, was a squalid place for the working class that had sprung up during the industrial revolution. Smog from those Victorian-era coal-burning factories still plagues the city, tarnishing its beautiful architecture as well as causing acid rain and a high incidence of child and adult asthma in residents of London. There is still a long battle ahead of us as we attempt to clean the skies over Los Angeles, and getting government uninvolved in industry would not be a step forward in that regard.

Some argue that the public would demand greater pollution control even if the government deregulated the industrial economy. I would argue that this is already the case. The public have seen that their complaints directly to the businessmen and women who run industrial companies rarely see a profit in the actions of these companies to regulate themselves. The public has spoken, and it has spoken through the government. Government’s role, even in the most conservative interpretation, is to prevent abuses on its citizens. Environmental abuses are just the sorts of things that the government should be prepared to prevent, as much so as an attack by a foreign power. Fortunately, corporations are usually friendlier than invading armies, but it is evident that the environmental destruction that they leave in their wake can be similar. Government regulation is beholden to the demands of the voters; the actions of the government in this regard are the actions of an organized public, and not of some disembodied regulatory bureaucracy, as it so often appears. Find more papers at

‘Liberal’ in the sense used by market liberalists is a far cry from the political meaning of the word. Market liberalism stands in flagrant disregard of the presence of a community, preferring to look only for the presence of a market. A consumer society can thrive if it looks towards the future and acts in accordance with environmental values. An overabundance or an unhealthy addiction to consumption can ruin a community just like it can ruin an individual. Government in its best and most effective form can act as the conscience of a community, as a springboard for its ideas and as a means of implementing plans for the future. A government that allowed ecological crimes to take place would hardly be acting according to its function, nor would it be acting as the advocate of the voters. If, as history has taught us, industry cannot be trusted to have its own conscience, government must act as its conscience, and must not be restricted from meeting industry’s power with its own power, in legal and moral force.

  • Gore, Albert (Senator). Earth in the Balance. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.