The Mystery of Capitalism

I am always surprised that no one bothers to tell the story of capitalism.

No, the stories we prefer to tell our children is that capitalism is a dangerous, soulless, relentlessly exploitative exercise.  Indeed, this story is so preferred as our received wisdom that it is exceedingly rare to hear anyone recent Adam Smith’s magical insight, that good things can and do come from people pursuing their own, sometimes narrow, objectives.

The anti-capitalism view is an ideological fixture of our education systems at every level, from grade to graduate school.  We could call it orthodoxy if it were not so much like boilerplate.  It’s not so much argued as assumed.

Capitalists are sanguine.  Apparently, they don’t feel they have to tell the story of capitalism.  Somehow capitalism will teach its own lessons.  Once people escape the magic kingdom of education, the truth will dawn.  Once they have spend a little time in the marketplace, the penny will drop.  Or, as the English like to say, "if a man’s not a Marxist at 20, there’s something wrong with his heart.  But if he is still a Marxist at 30, there’s something wrong with his head."

When Peter Robinson interviewed Gary Becker, Professor at the University of Chicago and winner of the Nobel Prize, recently, the master surprised Robinson be announcing, "Markets are hard to appreciate."   Robinson asks for clarification and Becker obliges:

"People tend to impute good motives to government. And if you assume that government officials are well meaning, then you also tend to assume that government officials always act on behalf of the greater good. People understand that entrepreneurs and investors by contrast just try to make money, not act on behalf of the greater good. And they have trouble seeing how this pursuit of profits can lift the general standard of living. The idea is too counterintuitive. So we’re always up against a kind of in-built suspicion of markets. There’s always a temptation to believe that markets succeed by looting the unfortunate."

And I think this gets at some part of the heart of the problem.  Capitalism is, as Becker says, counterintuitive.  It tells a bad story.  In fact, it isn’t a story.  It is anti-storyish.

Capitalism doesn’t have heroes.  It doesn’t have people called to higher motives.  It doesn’t have noble sacrifices for the good of others.  It doesn’t, usually, have daring action on a public stage.

No, capitalism is just has some guy who owns a handful of dry cleaning outfits in a small town in New Hampshire.  He works hard, supplies a service, pays off his loans, coaches Little League, goes to church, gets his kids through college, and spends his very few disposable hours on the golf course.

Script!  Casting!  Someone call the studio!   This is appalling.  It doesn’t matter that out of these mundane activities in lots of towns big and small, played out by millions of people across the US, something remarkable will come.  This just isn’t a story anyone wants to listen to.  So no one much wants to tell it.  Not Hollywood.  Not our mythmakers.  Not our story tellers.

The economist has spoken.  It is a little clearer why we do not tell the story of capitalism.  It just doesn’t tell very well. But if the anthropologist may join in here.  Can we at least acknowledge that there is something fabulously odd about a culture that depends on capitalism but that will not ever acknowledge it in the stories it tells itself about itself.

References

Robinson, Peter.  2010.  Basically an Optimist–Still.  The Wall Street Journal.  March 27 -28.  p. A13.

Note: This post reposted December 23, 2010.  It was lost due to Network Solutions incompetence and only just tonight resurfaced on the net.  

One thought on “The Mystery of Capitalism”

  1. “No, capitalism is just has some guy who owns a handful of dry cleaning outfits in a small town in New Hampshire.” I think a lot of people might find this interesting. Reality TV has shown us that you don’t necessarily have to be famous to be interesting. What matters is that we can relate to the story.

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