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Is laissez-faire fair? Free-market capitalism is both praised and pummeled in two fiery new books

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Origami by Won Park for TIME

The Free Market Capitalist's Survival Guide By Jerry Bowyer (Broadside; 217 pages)

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism By Ha-Joon Chang (Bloomsbury; 286 pages)

Imagine two explorers who set out to survey a new continent. One comes back from his journey and describes the idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by the native population: the foliage is lush, the cuisine delectable and the rulers just. The other examines the same terrain and reports that the inhabitants are miserable, the food stinks and the rulers are despots. What gives?

Reading these two books about free-market capitalism simultaneously is a Rashomon-like experience. How can two authors start at the same place and arrive at diametrically opposite views? Jerry Bowyer, a fervent believer in supply-side economics, insists that the Obama Administration is careering toward a "hate the wealthy" socialist state. But Ha-Joon Chang is concerned with another President, Ronald Reagan, whose brand of unfettered free-market capitalism, he believes, has left the global economy in tatters.

The authors' writing styles are poles apart. Bowyer, a CNBC contributor and chief economist at BenchMark, a financial-services firm, has a bare-knuckles, take-no-prisoners bluster. "Obamacare is not something that flows from the barrel of a conventional firearm," he writes. "It is much more like an agent of biological warfare." Chang, befitting his position as an economics professor at Cambridge University, is engagingly thoughtful and opinionated at a much lower decibel level. "The 'truths' peddled by free-market ideologues are based on lazy assumptions and blinkered visions," he charges.

Bowyer's goal is advising readers how to "prosper under the current anti-wealth climate." Financial tips include not investing in anything "big enough that the state sees it as a rival to its own power," getting behind "solutions to leftism" like "politically disfavored media outlets" and pouring money into foreign markets "outside the reach of our leaders."

Bowyer's beef with the prevailing form of capitalism is familiar to Washington watchers. He writes that the President has a veiled "redistribution philosophy" that unfairly targets the wealthy. Wall Street is wrongly deemed "parasitical," he says. Only if the government lets business be business and CEOs collect their (monetary) due will the economy right itself.

Chang's goal is intellectual: he would trash the lessons of a generation of neoliberal economists. There is no such thing as a free market, he declares; "a market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them." He points out that slavery and child labor, once considered free-market prerogatives, are now universally rejected by free marketeers. Immigration policies, he says, determine which workers are available and how much they are paid according to political pressures.

As is so often the case in economic debate, each author is preaching to the choir. Their readers exist in parallel universes. It is unlikely that George Soros will be picking up Bowyer's antileft screed anytime soon or that Rupert Murdoch will give Chang's liberal musings the time of day. So if you're having a literary soirée, don't seat these two authors next to each other unless you want the banquet table upended.