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Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery

Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery

John Mueller
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery
    Book Description:

    Democracy is overrated. Capitalism, on the other hand, doesn't get enough credit. In this provocative and engaging book, John Mueller argues that these mismatches between image and reality create significant political and economic problems--inspiring instability, inefficiency, and widespread cynicism. We would be far better off, he writes, if we recognized that neither system is ideal or disastrous and accepted instead the humdrum truth that both are "pretty good." And, to Mueller, that means good enough. He declares that what is true of Garrison Keillor's fictional store "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery" is also true of democracy and capitalism: if you can't get what you want there, "you can probably get along without it."

    Mueller begins by noting that capitalism is commonly thought to celebrate greed and to require discourtesy, deceit, and callousness. However, with examples that range from car dealerships and corporate boardrooms to the shop of an eighteenth-century silk merchant, Mueller shows that capitalism in fact tends to reward behavior that is honest, fair, civil, and compassionate. He argues that this gap between image and reality hampers economic development by encouraging people to behave dishonestly, unfairly, and discourteously to try to get ahead and to neglect the virtuous behavior that is an important source of efficiency and gain.

    The problem with democracy's image, by contrast, is that our expectations are too high. We are too often led by theorists, reformers, and romantics to believe that democracy should consist of egalitarianism and avid civic participation. In fact, democracy will always be chaotic, unequal, and marked by apathy. It offers reasonable freedom and security, but not political paradise. To idealize democracy, Mueller writes, is to undermine it, since the inevitable contrast with reality creates public cynicism and can hamper democracy's growth and development.

    Mueller presents these arguments with sophistication, wit, and erudition. He combines mastery of current political and economic literature with references to figures ranging from Plato to P. T. Barnum, from Immanuel Kant to Ronald Reagan, from Shakespeare to Frank Capra. Broad in scope and rich in detail, the book will provoke debate among economists, political scientists, and anyone interested in the problems (or non-problems) of modern democracy and capitalism.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2312-3
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)

    • CHAPTER 1 Capitalism and Democracy: IMAGES AND IMAGE MISMATCHES
      (pp. 5-18)

      Democracy and free-market capitalism seem to suffer from image problems—opposite ones, as it happens. Capitalism is much better than its image, while democracy has turned out to be much worse than its image.

      Although capitalism is generally given credit, even by its many detractors, for generating wealth and for stimulating economic growth, it is commonly maligned for the deceit, unfairness, dishonesty, and discourtesy that are widely taken to be the inevitable consequences of its apparent celebration of greed. But capitalism actually tends, all other things being equal, systematically, though not uniformly, to reward business behavior that is honest, fair,...


    • CHAPTER 2 Capitalism’s Image
      (pp. 21-56)

      Capitalism is routinely assumed to inspire in its practitioners behavior that is deceitful, deceptive, cowardly, unfair, boorish, and lacking compassion. I assess this negative image in this chapter and conclude that, however popular, the image is fundamentally misguided. On the contrary, capitalism systematically encourages and rewards business behavior that is honest, fair, civil, and compassionate, and it also encourages, and often rewards, behavior that in many cases should reasonably be considered heroic. Moreover, people who are genuinely honest, fair, civil, and compassionate are more likely to succeed in business than those who simply feign such qualities. Or, more generally, nice...

    • CHAPTER 3 Sources of Capitalism’s Negative Image
      (pp. 57-71)

      The previous chapter developed the suggestion that acquisitive capitalists are well advised, in the punchy, bulleted official philosophy of the highly successful head of Harley-Davidson, to tell the truth, keep your promises, be fair, respect the individual, and encourage curiosity.¹ The standard and well-aged image of capitalism, however, is of course quite the reverse. This negative image has been propagated over history by a wide variety of dectractors: socialists, communists, fiction writers, intellectuals, religious thinkers, and aristocrats. But the advancement of capitalism’s negative image has also sometimes been aided by inept capitalist propaganda, by disenchanted capitalists, and by economically foolish...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Consequences of Capitalism’s Image for Economic Development
      (pp. 72-98)

      I have argued that business behavior that is honest, fair, civil, and compassionate is, on average, wealth-enhancing. It follows that, all other things equal, places where these business virtues flourish will be more prosperous than places where they don’t.

      And, indeed, that seems to be substantially the case. As Max Weber once pointed out: “The universal reign of absolute unscrupulousness in the pursuit of selfish interests by the making of money has been a specific characteristic of precisely those countries whose bourgeois-capitalistic development . . . has remained backward.”¹

      As this suggests, one of the most important causes of economic...

    • CHAPTER 5 Development, Happiness, and the Rise of the Politically Incorrect One-Handed Economist
      (pp. 99-134)

      As noted in the previous chapter and as charted in figure 4.1, over the last two centuries or so an enormous and accelerating expansion of economic wealth and well-being has taken place in the developed world. This development has been utterly unprecedented in the history of the human race, and in my view it has been importantly enhanced by the gradual acceptance by people in business of the virtues of honesty, fairness, civility, and compassion as innovative capitalists discovered the economic value of these virtues.

      The rather uniform anticipation among economic historians is that this remarkable economic expansion will continue,...


    • CHAPTER 6 Images and Definitions
      (pp. 137-163)

      There is a famous Norman Rockwell painting that purports to portray democracy in action. It depicts a New England town meeting in which a workingman has risen in a contentious situation to present his point of view. His rustic commonsense, it appears, has cut through the indecisiveness and bickering to provide a consensual solution to the problem at hand, and the others in the picture are looking up at him admiringly.

      As it happens, that misty-eyed, idealized snapshot has almost nothing to do with democracy in actual practice. Democracy is not a process in which one shining idea conquers all...

    • CHAPTER 7 Consequences of the Democratic Image
      (pp. 164-191)

      In the previous chapter, I developed a perspective about democracy based not on ideal images but rather on how the form actually seems to work, stressing that it is characterized by a chaotic interplay of special interests in a political environment distinguished by inequality, by minority rule, and by a sort of majority acquiescence that substantially derives from inattentiveness and apathy. The chapter concluded with something of a paean to democracy, albeit one that some democratic idealists might well consider a bit perverse.

      While many of those exalting the democratic ideal might grudgingly agree that democracy does more or less...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Rise of Democracy
      (pp. 192-228)

      I have argued that, contrary to the gloomy and sometimes strident claims of many of its well-wishers, democracy can function remarkably well even when its constituents participate only as moved to do so and even when they exhibit little in the way of self-discipline, restraint, commitment, knowledge, or sacrifice for the general interest. For democracy to operate, people do not generally need to be good or noble, nor do they need to be deeply imbued with some sort of democratic spirit or culture. They need merely to muse about how they think things ought to be, relying on their best...


      (pp. 231-242)

      It has been a running theme of this book—its bottom line, in fact—that there is a considerable disconnection between democracy and its image and between capitalism and its image. This chapter includes an assessment of the connections, if any, between democracy and capitalism themselves.

      Democracy and capitalism, it seems, are actually quite independent: each can exist without the other. However, democracy may benefit on balance from its (erroneously alleged) association with capitalist prosperity, and both institutions, on the other hand, are often unfairly associated with crime, something that could undermine their acceptance.

      Moreover, although capitalism does not require...

    (pp. 243-254)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 255-288)
  10. References
    (pp. 289-316)
  11. Index
    (pp. 317-335)