The G-File

Capitalism on My Mind

Dear Reader,

“I think a lot of people like capitalism in theory but not in practice,” the inestimable Mr. Nordlinger (which sounds a lot like “the Talented Mr. Ripley,” though I should be clear the similarities end there) wrote recently in the Corner.

That statement, which I think is inarguably true, has been rolling around in my head like something that loudly rolls around inside something else in an unexpected but bizarrely analogous way.

But I also think there are people who don’t like capitalism in theory but like it – like it a lot! – in practice. The most obvious example is the familiar class of poo-flinging Hollywood gibbons who seem to believe there is no incongruity in spending large sums of money on white-smock-clad cadres of small third-world women to provide intensive grooming of their undercarriages while at the same time insisting that Communism is a great idea. It’s as if they think that, under true socialism, they’d still be able to get a Brazilian wax.

The more consistent bunch are those in academia who hate capitalism both in theory and in practice. They rightly understand that under socialism they would probably be better off — not materially perhaps, but certainly in terms of their status in society. I’ve always believed that if capitalism rewarded poetry majors more, free markets would be in a lot better shape today.

Where Are the Odes to Enterprise?

Think about it. Socialism is about enforced conformity, central planning, and homogeneity. It reduces people to purely economic actors and is traditionally predicated on the theory that there are cold, immutable forces controlling the course of history. Free markets, meanwhile, are about creativity, self-determination, risk, failure, success, self-fulfillment, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The free market assumes that the future is an undiscovered country that each of us can explore and homestead to the best of our abilities. Like I said when I gave my wife a sixer of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a large bag of extra-spicy beef jerky, “That’s pretty frick’n romantic.”

And yet, how many odes to the free market are there? I don’t know the answer, of course, but my hunch is: not many. I do strongly suspect that respected poems – and plays, novels, movies, songs, sculptures, paintings, etc. – celebrating socialism outnumber ones dedicated to free markets by a greater margin than people who would prefer to feed a large group of dyspeptic and hungry badgers sticky wet marshmallows from a crotch-mounted papier-mâché bowl are outnumbered by those who’d prefer a free vacation to Hawaii instead.

My apologies for using such technical social-science metrics.

High Status Anxiety, It’s You that I Blame

Anyway, the point is that certain academic and romantic types hate capitalism because A) it doesn’t make them rich, comparatively speaking, and B) it doesn’t make them sufficiently powerful or important either.

Hold on, I know what you’re saying: “If the police find all of those decapitated Barbie dolls in my trunk, they might find it suspicious.” And after that, you’re saying, “Wait a second, Goldberg’s sounding an awful lot like Richard Hofstadter here.”

And it’s true: I am starting to sound like Hofstadter. A quick recap: The late liberal historian Richard Hofstadter – borrowing from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, but also a little from Max Weber and C. Wright Mills – used to call this sort of thing “status anxiety.” According to Hofstadter, the progressives craved “reform,” the populists yearned for political upheaval, and the new Right sought vengeance and purity of some kind, all because these groups couldn’t handle the psychological tumult and loss of prestige that came with capitalism, industrialization, and modernity.

Hofstadter wrote somewhere – maybe the bathroom wall at Columbia, I’m not sure — that his generation grew up on the Marxist reductionism that says everyone’s behavior is motivated by economic self-interest. Hofstadter’s emphasis on status represented progress of a sort because he at least argued that people have other motives – which is true. The problem is that Hofstadter — and generations of his intellectual offspring — ended up arguing that movements that do not follow their strict economic interests (as defined by Hofstadter and smug liberals everywhere) are therefore irrational. Liberalism was in your objective economic self-interest, so if you aren’t liberal you aren’t rational.

The result, as Christopher Lasch argued, is that we were left with an analytical framework designed to be richer and more nuanced than cold economic determinism but ended up being a mode of slander that reinforces Marxist clichés by holding that anyone who deviates from their economic interests is nuttier than Mr. Peanut (forms of nuttiness can include racism, overt acts of Christianity, opposition to illegal immigration, fear of Communism, not voting for Barack Obama, as well as more traditional salted and dry-roasted flavors of nuttiness).

We see the legacy of this sort of thing all over the place, as I’ve written . . . let’s see, carry the 2, uh . . . about a trillion times. See: Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas; Obama’s remarks that the voters who didn’t support him in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary were bitter clingers who couldn’t let go of their sky god and boomsticks; the editorial page of the New York Timesfrom 1952 thru 2012; and so on.

Where I deviate from crude Hofstadterism is that I don’t think you have to be crazy or psychologically insecure to care about non-economic issues. A lot of the things in politics we really care about have little or nothing to do with narrow economic self-interest, and of course status plays a role in how we view the world. A society that rewards everything you care about and value will seem more healthy than a society that doesn’t. So I understand the folks who dislike capitalism in theory and in practice. I think they’re wrong and to a certain degree selfish. But I understand where they are coming from.

The Praxis of Evil?

Now, how did I get here? Oh, right. I took the blue pill. Anyway, perhaps because the Goldberg File would not exist were it not crafted inside the white-hot furnace of my own solipsism (hey, look, a naked Indian just offered me a Krispy Kreme donut!), I think the more interesting folks are the ones – like me – who have more problems with capitalism in theory than we do with capitalism in practice.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Krispy Kreme donuts, I just prefer them glazed . . . Oh, sorry, I was talking to the Indian.

Don’t get me wrong, I dig capitalism in theory. What has two thumbs and digs free markets? This guy (my thumbs are currently pointed me-ward, which makes typing incredibly difficult). But I have more problems with it in theory than I do in practice, for the simple reason that I think capitalism is an insufficient theory of human behavior. My friend Ronald Bailey always used to say that if socialism worked, he’d probably be a socialist, but since it doesn’t, what’s the point in being a socialist?

I’m not sure I go entirely that far. If socialism worked – and defining what works is a very messy subject – I’d probably still have problems with it. Free speech doesn’t always work – some people say dangerous and unhelpful things – but I’m still in favor of free speech. Similarly, free enterprise could be as bad as the Left claims and I’d still support it on the grounds that free enterprise is a form of freedom. That doesn’t mean it can’t be regulated where necessary, like speech, but at the end of the day the ideal is to maximize liberty. What was it Robert Nozick said? “The socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults.” Then again if socialism worked, it would be much harder to defend abstract freedoms that make people poorer.

There are some capitalist purists who are in shocking agreement with socialists. Both reduce human behavior to mere economics. What separates the capitalists from the socialists is this: The former are comfortable with reducing human behavior to mere economic self-interest, and the latter aren’t. They think that if you just shove the round peg of humanity into the square hole of socialism hard enough, you can make people not care about economic self-interest (ironically these are the same people who favor socialism precisely because it’s all about economic self-interest).

Socialists find capitalism unlovely in theory, so they go looking for lovely theories like a little girl looking for daisies. The seductive power of lovely theories that aren’t true is well-established (See: 20th Century, Socialist Horrors). It can be found in the coprophagous phylum of intellectuals who keep insisting that socialism has “never been tried,” which is every dumber than saying “no one has ever tried to ride a unicorn” — which is at least true, because unicorns don’t exist.

In theory, I would much prefer if cute animals weren’t dangerous. Who wouldn’t like to hug a grizzly bear? The problem is that in fact, and contrary to reputation, the grizzly bear is not a hugger, strictly speaking. A similar line of thinking explains why most people opt not to exercise the aforementioned hungry badger option.

Ultimately, whether you like capitalism in theory is irrelevant so long as you accept that it’s superior in fact. Capitalism alleviates poverty. Socialism democratizes poverty. Conservatives can accept that capitalism has some unlovely implications while still celebrating its lovely result. If that hurts the feelings of the corporphagous set, so be it. As Emerson said, there’s a “certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact.”

Capitalism on My Mind

Given the riot of beclowning cannibalism overtaking the GOP these days, you might understand why capitalism is on my mind. But I didn’t want to do the usual defense of Bain and private equity. Still, if you’re interested in such stuff, here’s my latest column, which touches on the subject. Also see our editorial  and Rich’s column.

Various and Sundry

Yes, Pets with Newt is for real [BROKEN LINK]. I like that the pets are “with” Newt and not “for” Newt. There’s a certain Narnian quality to using “with.” It’s as if the animals have expressed their solidarity in the great battles ahead. I can imagine things at Newt HQ: “Quiet, everybody! I just received word: The ferrets are with us!”

Ten things our kids will never have to worry about, thanks to the information revolution.

The New Hampshire NR event was great fun. Thanks to all of you who came down for it, particularly those who stayed to the bitter end.

Speaking of bitter ends, I was not a big fan of 2011. As I joked on the comedy panel, I feel like I should be down at the police station with a detective asking “Show me where on the doll 2011 touched you.” Anyway, in case you missed it, here is my 2011 year-in-review column. I had to stop around 750 words (unlike the Goldberg File, to my editor’s chagrin), but I think I could expanded on my argument for another 2,000 words).

I will be speaking at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on February 1. Details to come.

I will be speaking at CPAC. Details to come.

I will be speaking in the Air Alaska bathroom, air marshals to come.

In tribute to Mollie Hemingway, the word of the day is retromingent.

Sincere Gratitude

Finally, as I mentioned last week, my wonderful friend and sister-in-law has died. Indeed, I’m finishing this G-File on the plane to her funeral in Fairbanks, Alaska (thanks to in-flight wifi). Pauli was a fan of the G-File and I like to think she’s reading it now and is pleased by it. Regardless, I want to say thank you to all of the readers who shared their condolences. It was appreciated.


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