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Volume 5, Number 6
Mises vs. the Green-Eyed Monster
A truism among free-marketeers is that collectivism is flawed because it flies in the face of human nature. But many writers on our side also ignore a key aspect of human nature. They write about politics and economics as if they were logic or mechanics. Pull lever X for output Y. Disseminate the evidence of capitalism's success and collectivism's failures, and the capitalist paradise, in time, will come.
Most true-believing collectivists—and frauds increasingly swell the ranks—underestimate the force of self-interest. But many capitalist thinkers underestimate the force of envy, and in this regard are far more naive than collectivists. Lenin never tired of stressing that his goal was to make class envy flare into revolutionary hatred.
Capitalist thinkers continue tabulating collectivism's follies and savageries, and capitalism's virtues—tabulations that at this stage of history shouldn't seriously be disputed—while watching indignantly and incredulously as collectivism claims more and more ground even in the very citadel of capitalism, the United States, where six and a half years into the reign of the supposedly most free-market president since the 1920s, federal spending is at an all-time high.
Ludwig von Mises showed 31 years ago in The Anti-capitalistic Mentality that reason, evidence, and humaneness have about as much impact on public policy as an Oral Roberts sermon would have on Nietzsche. As too few contemporary economists do, Mises realized that for libertarian economists to have a practical as well as scholarly impact, they must understand the non-rational factors that breed hostility to capitalism:
In a society of equality under the law the inequality of men with regard to intellectual abilities, will power and application becomes visible. The gulf between what a man is and achieves and what he thinks of his own abilities and achievements is pitilessly revealed. Daydreams of a "fair" world which would treat him according to his "real worth" are the refuge of all those plagued by a lack of self-knowledge.
The more sophisticated sublimate their hatred into…the philosophy of anti-capitalism, in order to render inaudible the inner voice that tells them that their failure is entirely their own fault. Their fanaticism in defending their critique of capitalism is precisely due to the fact that they are fighting their own awareness of its falsity.
The anti-capitalism of intellectuals tends to be greater than that of common men because, Mises wrote, the latter tend to associate with other common men, and so have mere abstractions—e.g. Wall Street, the plutocracy—as objects of their envy and resentment. These can't rouse nearly as much hatred as direct contact with people, and intellectuals often have daily contact with colleagues far wealthier and more prominent than they are.
This happens far more today than in 1956, when The Anti-capitalistic Mentality was written. Today's obscure prof in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, with a break or two, could become tomorrow's darling of the publishing house, think tanks, talk shows, and lecture circuits, while his ex-colleagues remain obscure and rage against the system that catapulted him to the top. To rage at him directly not only would be bad form, but also would reveal small, ungenerous souls. So they rage at the Unjust Capitalist System. Should the prof actually be a capitalist—a rarity but not yet illegal in America—no obloquy and punishment would be too severe.
Thus do the envious find scapegoats and, more important, project images of sophistication and rebelliousness. Average Americans in their parochialism and philistinism actually admire the rich and famous—intellectuals sneer—being blind to the system's tawdriness and injustice. Only they are worldly enough to see the truth and daring enough to call attention to it.
Mises found these attitudes to be even more pronounced among intellectuals in America than in Europe, since intellectuals have far more contact with businessmen here. The greedy, philistine businessman is likely the most common stereotype in American literature, not to mention television and movies. I don't dispute that plenty of Americans are serious when they ask, "If you're so smart why ain't you rich?" But then, as Mises says, most intellectuals who ignorantly disparage business as too vulgar to bother learning about, show less intellectual capacity than businessmen.
Some business is vulgar. Some get rich pushing products that have no more moral, cultural, or aesthetic worth than Christian Marxism. "Nobody ever contended," Mises said, "that under unhampered capitalism those fare best who, from the standpoint of eternal standards of value, ought to be preferred." What capitalism ensures is the dictatorship of consumers: in other words, the populism Marx thought would ultimately accompany destruction of property.
Anti-capitalists blame capitalism for all the vulgar and vacuous products that enchant the masses. They might have at least a small point if (1) they were themselves fit to decide what the masses should buy, (2) noncapitalist nations had higher levels of culture, or (3) the vulgarities and vacuities of capitalism prevented quality from being produced.
In fact, in countries where capitalism has been crippled or eliminated, citizens are lucky if they can afford the bare necessities of daily living, let alone culture, and in communist countries being a mere spectator of true culture, which requires intellectual freedom, is illegal. In Czechoslovakia forming a jazz club lands you in jail. But filthy-rich capitalists often underwrite high art. Pictures of nude beauties bring Hugh Hefner the wealth with which he commissions award-winning journalism. Such examples are endless.
Successful capitalism means satisfying the very masses in whose name anti-capitalists push their pishposh. Market forces may take a while to take effect, but soon enough an entrepreneur must shut down if his products aren't popular (assuming he's not rich enough to keep operating in the red). Anti-capitalists' chief delusion is that X's wealth causes Y's poverty. Greed does run amok from time to time in capitalist societies, and not always to society's benefit. But what's remarkable under capitalism is how individual greed usually enhances the commonwealth.
The fact is that only in the ignorant, envy-fueled hallucinations of anti-capitalists is capitalist greed all-consuming. For every jackass obsessed with upping his annual income from seven figures to eight, there are millions who care nothing for yachts and Rolls Royces, and want only to be comfortable and have "the-heck-with-you" money, i.e., enough to be able to say "the heck with you" if asked to do demeaning or dishonorable work. Indeed, the hallucinations to the contrary richly suggest that it is not capitalists but anti-capitalists who are obsessed with money.
Perhaps, indeed, the ideal of most anti-capitalists is former Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who owned, among other delights of Veblenian conspicuousness, 25 Western cars, including two Rolls Royce limos, a Lincoln Continental, and a Mercedes Benz. As many Western socialists prove as well, cornucopian can be the blessings that flow from a life of selfless striving to free the working class from its chains.
Bradley Miller was editorial director for the Heritage Foundation at the time this was written.