The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 13, Number 10
From Left and Right, capitalism is condemned for all the
cultural failings of the modern
world--everything from mindless TV to dirty books to slatternly
art to trashy movies to debasing
music. It's an extension of the liberal habit of blaming a system
for what are actually the failings
Ludwig von Mises identified Victorian art critic John Ruskin
as the intellectual source of this
ceaseless griping. Ruskin saw civilization, embodied in the arts,
as going down the tubes, and he
labeled the market economy as the cause. This allowed him to be a
socialist without surrendering
upper-class affectations or having to prattle about workers and
Ruskin thus qualifies, said Mises, as "one of the gravediggers
of British freedom, civilization and
prosperity." "A wretched character in his private no less than in
his public life," Ruskin eulogized
the ancient producer cartels called guilds. "Government and
cooperation are in all things the laws
of life," wrote Ruskin in Unto This Last (1862),
"anarchy and competition the laws of death."
Nowadays, practically everyone with a college degree is a
tacit Ruskinian. Americans may
understand the productive power of the market, but many are blind
to its virtue as a civilizing
agent, to its ability to sustain tradition, create what's
beautiful and grand, and preserve what's
right and good.
The Left (still essentially Marxian) wants us to think of
capitalism as modern and industrial.
More correctly, capitalism is just a name for the social
recognition of private property, trade, and
contract enforcement. It was as much a part of ancient Athens as
19th-century America. In its
total absence, civilization would crumble, and the arts vanish.
In modern times, the confusion usually starts this way.
Someone flips on the television to find the
usual rotten show and offensive commercials. He concludes that's
the market at work: base,
vulgar, and insulting to our intelligence.
Once on this track, the anti-capitalist mentality runs wild.
The decadence of the cash nexus
appears everywhere. Strip malls and yellow M's in the sky.
Boxing, moshing, tabloids, rap, and
low pay for intellectuals. It's all horrible, sniffs this person,
and it's all capitalism's fault.
If this theory were correct, the prophets, saints, and ancient
philosophers were wasting their
breath. They called on people to abandon sin and adopt virtue,
when they could have taken the
fast-track to social salvation by condemning free exchange and
What the great moralists knew, and we've forgotten, is that
people and cultures are products of
human choice. Good lives can flourish in any social setting,
whether the prison camp, the Wild
West, or Washington, D.C. (hard as the latter is to believe).
Sin and stupidity will, of course, always be with us. From an
economic perspective, our goal
should be to make sure that sinners pay for their sins, and that
minimal resources are used to
cater to them. In this process, capitalism is our ally. In
addition to making prosperity possible, the
whole point of economics and markets is to make sure the minimum
amount of resources is used
to satisfy any particular demand of any particular group.
The free economy is efficient because it deals with tastes and
preferences as a given, it organizes
resources in an economically practical way, and it arranges for
the consumer to get what he wants
at the least possible cost to everyone else.
The junk on television may indeed speak volumes about our
culture. People should care about
more important things. Thanks to capitalism, however, society
isn't wasting excess resources on
it. Trash is delivered in the least costly manner, leaving more
resources for the pursuit of what
Entrepreneurs have learned to provide services to even the
smallest niche. When I see television,
and I don't very often, the most intelligent network is EWTN. It
features 50-part lectures by
learned academics on subjects like Scholasticism.
This is a profitable enterprise that would be considered
wasteful in a socialist country--not to
mention politically incorrect. In a less prosperous society, it
couldn't survive. Yet I can't
remember anyone crediting capitalism for making St. Thomas
Aquinas accessible to the masses.
It used to be said that government had to fund the arts for
them to be of good quality. That
argument no longer flies. Take a look at the malevolent and
stupid creations of the National
Endowment for Arts. The government's "sculptures,"
"architecture," and "music" has littered the
country with rubbish.
Economists say that the market "internalizes externalities."
This means, in part, that people who
are offended by some goods and services can structure their lives
to avoid exposure. That's
mostly true, especially in the case of sleazy television and
movies, pornography, and weird
services like telephone sex. Thanks to capitalism--which
restricts such services to the people who
purchase them--the rest of us don't have to be affected.
A shop selling Satanic trinkets recently opened up in Auburn,
Alabama. "Anything for a buck,"
people sneered, until the store went belly-up for lack of
business. It's true that some people willdo
anything for a buck, but in a market economy, they have to be
subservient to the consuming
The market delivers plenty of similar good news, though most
of it goes unremarked. Let's
consider the case of big cities, which the productive public has
been clawing its way out of for
The government has done everything in its power to make cities
uninhabitable by regular people.
Government welfare has fostered a whole class of citizens that is
at once indolent and criminal.
Public housing and rental subsidies have destroyed settings that
were once middle-class. Many
cities today are only "cultural" centers if you like freaks and
Yet, thanks to capitalism, there is hope. Private individuals
and developers take buildings that
appear beyond repair and revive them. House by house, block by
block, whole sections of cities
have been gentrified. It's not charity work. Without a system of
profit and loss, it wouldn't
Yet you can't satisfy those with an anti-capitalist mentality.
They invariably complain that
gentrification raises property values and "squeezes" out the
poor, while forgetting to notice how
much better off everyone is when degraded resources are made more
Beach housing has long been a magnet for cultural complaints
against capitalism. High-rise
buildings were routinely called evil for destroying the view from
a mile away. Yet it is this type
of structure which makes beach-living possible for the masses in
the first place.
Some architects, in revulsion against beach high rises, have
worked with investors to buy miles
of property on the beach. Then they create communities with
quaint houses and shops. The result
is magnificent, and entirely private, if affordable only for a
These architects think they're repudiating the tackiness of
capitalism. They fail to realize that
their private, planned communities are as much a part of
capitalism as the high rises. Far from
making a left-wing ideological point, they are catering to
different tastes, marketing a product,
and vastly increasing the value of property as a result. High
rises and private communities
represent capitalism at work.
Yet what about the materialism of capitalism? This too is a
misnomer. Strictly speaking,
capitalism is not about material goods; it's about exchangeable
goods. Leisure, love, beauty, and
art are all exchangeable, and as much a part of economic life as
Big Macs and Seinfeld.
It's said that markets bring about short-term thinking. Quite
the contrary. Markets often focus on
the extreme long-term, in ways the government can never do.
Consider the wine industry. It can
take decades before a vineyard produces a really great bottle of
wine. Even common table wines
require that entrepreneurs plan many years in advance. The more
forward-looking the capitalist,
the more he can be rewarded for setting aside temporary
Every good and service has a timetable, and the entrepreneur
must plan in the most cost-effective
manner. It's bureaucratic man--not the mythical economic man--who
is prone to consumption and
immediate gratification. And the more the state intervenes in an
economy, the more it penalizes
long-term thinking and rewards short-termism. Inflation is the
most obvious example.
But hasn't the capitalist mentality forced everyone in the
family to work sixty hours per week,
just to keep up with material desires? In fact, it's the
government that has brought it about. A
conspiracy against sound money and private property is what drove
wives and mothers into the
workforce in the 1970s and 1980s. A return to unfettered
capitalism would allow those who
desired it to return home, so that we could restore family and
community life. Both thrived under
As Schumpeter noted, every socialist is an enemy of the
bourgeois values of home, family,
community, property, honesty, diligence, and hard work. The more
socialist our economy
becomes, the more vice displaces virtue in public and private
As for the culturally uplifting aspects of capitalism, the
profit and loss system makes possible--to
take just a few examples--our economy's amazing bounty of
recorded classical music, the
greatest cabernets in the world, an abundance of culinary treats
even kings couldn't imagine two
centuries ago, and some good movies. If that doesn't convince,
consider that it's under capitalism
that the Bible became the all-time best-selling book.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell. Jr. is president and founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute