Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery

John Mueller, political science professor at the University of Rochester, aims to show that capitalism works pretty well and does not deserve its bad reputation. Democracy, meanwhile, is not perfect and ought not be invested with longings for egalitarian utopia. Both are problematic but adequate (like “Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery” of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, where you can get what you need, though not everything you may want).

In support of these very modest propositions, Mueller has made a very modest contribution. The book is too intellectually thin to be of interest to the serious scholar; it seems intended for a popular audience. Yet, even as the prose is readable and mostly jargon-free, there is hardly a page that does not drag in some reference or citation. The notes, bibliography, and index fill eighty pages and include some four-hundred-plus authors and works. The effect, however, is not so much impressive as distracting.

The book might be called “wide-ranging,” but it would be more accurate to say that it is all over the map. And because Mueller does not engage in a rigorous examination of any particular school of thought, the result is to distill everything to a lowest common denominator:

Aristotle once argued that “The happy man is one whose activity accords with perfect virtue and who is adequately furnished with external goods.” Or in the words of a Slovak filmmaker, “It is better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick.” Or, as Pearl Bailey put it even more succinctly, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.”

To which this reviewer cannot help adding: “Or, as Mel Brooks said most succinctly of all, ‘It’s good to be the king.’” Of course, succinctness is not always a virtue, and Aristotle deserves better than to have his philosophy reduced to cornpone aphorisms. Indeed, if Mueller would take Aristotle a bit more seriously, he might not dismiss virtue as merely health and wealth, or as wealth simply. That is, in fact, the central flaw of the book: Virtue, for Mueller, is just another word for greed.

One of the book’s central theses is that capitalism, far from being built on rapaciousness and deceit, works best under conditions of honesty and fair dealing. The virtues that make free markets work, however, are not really virtues at all; they are shrewd business tools, instrumentalities to the acquisition of wealth. “Capitalism encourages people in business to be honest, fair, civil, compassionate, and heroic, not because those qualities are valued for themselves, but because of … greed.” Now, one might argue that this is, in fact, true; and in certain places Mueller seems to say–following Aristotle–that through the practice of virtue, capitalism can help promote the habit of virtue. The author fails, though, to make the crucial next step. Nowhere does he suggest that this cultivation of morality is helpful because honesty and the virtues generally are worthwhile in their own right. Instead, morality is useful only because it facilitates capitalism. For Mueller, virtue remains merely instrumental.

Thus, he bristles at the notion that a market economy must be understood within a larger framework of the human good. In particular, he targets John Paul II, who defends private property and free enterprise while also warning against materialism and shallow consumerism. Roman Catholicism is caricatured as a “traditional enemy of capitalism.” Mueller cites Saint Augustine as denouncing “money lust,” which is fine, but even as he notes that it is “right up there with power lust and sex lust,” he somehow fails to see that the emphasis is on the lust, not the money.

In contrast to his opinion of the church, Mueller professes to admire the American Constitution, but not because it seeks to “establish justice … and secure the blessings of liberty.” The Constitution merely inhibits the governments from interfering with our “selfish instincts.” A low and simple thing, Mueller believes, and all we really need or should aspire to. In fact, the most bizarre part of this book is Mueller’s assertion that democracy requires hardly any effort all. Indeed, he claims, “it can come about rather easily, almost by default, if leaders (1) happen to come to the conclusion that democracy is the way to go; and (2) put the institution into effect….” Oh, is that all?

In Mueller’s world, the Civil War (to take perhaps the most egregious example) was merely “the idea of abolishing slavery … successfully promoted at a propitious time.” So much, apparently, for Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address Mueller finds “overdramatic.” And for that matter, so much for Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison, who thought it both necessary and honorable to reflect on the problems of political justice, and who devoted their lives to the difficult tasks of first securing self-government, then making it work. The good professor assures us instead that liberty and constitutionalism are “not terribly difficult to institute or to maintain.” No need for us to “pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” as the signers of the Declaration of Independence did. Anyone can “do” democracy.

Mueller is clearly well read, and not without sensible opinions. But the cheapening of virtue, and the contempt for political philosophy, civic spirit, and the challenges of statesmanship ultimately discredit what might have been a worthy attempt to defend and moderate the claims of self-government and free markets.