By William Deresiewicz
I published a piece last week in The New York Times in critique of the ethics of capitalism. The system, I said, is predicated on bad behavior, as Bernard Mandeville explained three centuries ago in The Fable of the Bees, a book that influenced Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, among others. Corporations will try to get away with what they can, I said, which is why we need the government to keep them in check.
The piece aroused predictable reactions. If you hate capitalism so much, why don’t you go and live in North Korea, you Leninist? If you hate capitalism so much, why don’t you give your book away for free? Capitalism isn’t the problem, government is; left alone, the system would police itself. One criticism did hit home, however. I began the piece by citing a study that supposedly claimed that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths.” Actually, I cited an article that cited the study, and the claim turns out to have been a serious misinterpretation of the original work. That was wrong; I should have been more skeptical, and I should have vetted the information more carefully. (The Times published a correction.)
Still, my argument did not depend on that claim. My principal evidence, as I said, was the parade of criminal behavior that passes across the business section on an average day—surely only a tiny portion of all corporate malfeasance. That, and capitalism’s larger history, especially during the Gilded Age, the last time we experienced something close to an unregulated free market—with results that led, precisely, to the rules we have in place today. The last 30 years in particular have demonstrated that, absent continuous regulatory and prosecutorial pressure, there is scarcely anything that corporations will not try to do. It doesn’t matter whether the business lobby succeeds in repealing the laws that seek to prevent forced overtime, toxic dumping, accounting fraud, and so forth. They have effectively already been repealed, to a large extent, through lack of enforcement. Corporate criminality is a sea that finds out any breach in its dyke.
Say this, though, and they equate you with Sacco and Vanzetti. Never mind that the need for public oversight of the economy was taken for granted until the recent rise of free-market fundamentalism. As for giving my book away, that’s an old smear. If you’re such a socialist, why do you use money? Why do you buy, sell, accept a salary, etc.? But capitalism, as I have said in this space, is not the same as commerce (which has its own perils, as I have also said). One is about five centuries old; the other undoubtedly predates recorded history. With respect to my own situation, I will only point out that any profits my book might earn will go to its publisher, not me. I’m a contract worker, operating within the only system we have. As a friend, a carpenter who has done his share of high-end renovations, once said, “Of course we work for rich people. They’re the ones with the money!”
That’s really the issue for me: how far out of balance the system’s become. I also talked, in the Times article, about that lovely new coinage, job creators: in other words, the lionization of our heroic and benevolent entrepreneurs at the expense of everyone else. It wasn’t enough for the rich to have most of the money. They had to have all of the money. And then that wasn’t enough, so they had to have all of the power. And still that wasn’t enough, so now they have to have all of the virtue, too.
All Points will be on hiatus next week for Memorial Day. Posts will resume June 4.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.