American's Love-Hate Affair with Capitalism


American Ethos: Public Attitudes Toward Capitalism and Democracy, by Herbert McClosky and John Zaller, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 342 pages, $27.50

Has capitalism gone the way of the dinosaur? To its defenders it often seems so, in rhetoric as well as in practice. Capitalism's defenders see competition and making a buck assailed and proscribed, downgraded and hemmed in, reviled and sometimes even prohibited. And yet many liberals think that capitalism has enjoyed a resurgence under the Reagan administration at the expense of the needy and less fortunate. With apologies to no one, college graduates vie for good jobs with good firms that will pay them top dollar—and Americans wish them well in this quest.

As a new study by Herbert McClosky and John Zaller reveals, that's America. We have a complex, not simple, attitude toward capitalism. Defenders of laissez-faire may look at the drift of public-policy debate and Americans' tolerance of an array of economic controls and conclude that there's no hope. But it's not that simple. The American Ethos: Public Attitudes Toward Capitalism and Democracy helps to sort out the actual mix of values that Americans tend to hold dear.

McClosky and Zaller find that Americans display a widespread commitment to both democratic and capitalist values. These values, with common origin in such principles as individualism and rationalism, have often reinforced each other, particularly in early American history. The struggle to discard vestiges of feudal privilege and restriction on individual freedom was justified in both democratic and capitalist terms. However, since the advent of industrial capitalism, note the authors, Americans have often perceived a conflict between certain egalitarian aspects of their democratic values and the individualist principles of capitalism.

The authors think this perception is sufficiently strong that, by the 20th century, capitalism increasingly has been on the defensive. In the past, business interests often found it sufficient simply to defend their entrepreneurial rights based on private property. Today, on the other hand, they "condemn government regulation less because it interferes with their inalienable right to use their property as they wish, than because it allegedly leads to higher prices and wasteful inefficiencies that (they contend) the public pays for."

McClosky and Zaller use a variety of general philosophical and historical sources, but their study is primarily empirical, based on three major surveys of political beliefs held by "elites" (defined as political activists and leaders) and the general public taken between 1975 and 1979. The extensive surveys tailored for this book, combined with the authors' sensitivities to the subtleties of question wording, make this one of the most complete treatments of mass political beliefs. Moreover, the procedures and findings are clearly explained in nontechnical language.

It is impossible to summarize the findings of a book this complex, but some points are particularly noteworthy. In general the authors find a high degree of consensus on abstract statements of both democratic and capitalist principles; disagreement and conflict are more evident regarding specific application of these principles.

For example, about 90 percent of the respondents support "free speech for all no matter what their views." Yet slightly over half the general public and about a third of the political elites agree that to protect moral values, society should forbid publication of certain things. In spite of these inconsistencies, the authors find increasing tolerance on free-speech issues since the 1950s, but less agreement on questions of moral and sexual behavior.

But it is the egalitarian aspect of the democratic outlook, not its personal liberty and participatory aspects, that leads to conflict with capitalist values. Many Americans believe that the goals of equality of opportunity and a decent life for everyone cannot consistently be achieved without government regulation and some kinds of welfare programs. Yet these supporters of welfare and regulation provisions do not see themselves as significantly rejecting the basic foundations of capitalism.

Thus, for example, key elements of the Protestant ethic that has shaped American capitalism still survive. A vast majority of people still see hard work as elevating and profit and self-interest as legitimate pursuits. Contemporary Americans do, however, largely reject the traditional Protestant-ethic assumption that poverty and failure are indications of moral inadequacy, while wealth is a sign of moral virtue. The authors conclude that support for capitalist values stems more from the secular values of individualism and economic efficiency than from Protestant moral and religious values.

The extensive general support that McClosky and Zaller find for free enterprise and private property is matched by a public distrust of big business and support for some forms of government economic regulation. A majority backs some government economic intervention. This cluster of attitudes is complex, since the public is also cynical about big government. The authors conclude that support for capitalism (beyond generalized statements) rests largely on the public's perception that capitalism brings economic results. Americans appear to think that the productivity and efficiency they see in capitalism can be enhanced by regulation without destroying capitalism itself.

McClosky and Zaller do not reduce all political divisions to differences in degree of support for capitalism and democracy. They use political ideology as an additional level of explanation of public attitudes. For example, people who are strongly procapitalist are more likely than strong democrats to object to homosexuals teaching in public schools. The authors see ideology as the explanation for this connection. Liberals believe in social change and are generally optimistic; they also tend to emphasize democratic values and regulation of capitalism. Conservatives are more pessimistic and concerned with order and stability; they also tend to be more strongly procapitalist and concerned with what they see as excessive egalitarianism.

Americans, conclude the authors, will continue to hold both democratic and capitalist values. And these values will continue to come into conflict. They predict that democratic egalitarian values will become even more entrenched, whereas capitalist values will be in an increasingly defensive position. The extent to which capitalist values can withstand assault from egalitarian democratic values depends largely on how well capitalism in practice is believed to produce overall efficiency and a decent life for everyone. The authors suggest that in the face of a faltering economy, as occurred at the time of Reagan's election in 1980, capitalist values may be reasserted. But they argue that if these attempts do not produce results, support for government intervention will endure.

While The American Ethos is an outstanding resource, it has some limitations. The survey return rate for the general public was 61 percent; while typical for a mail return survey, it nonetheless may bias the results toward more consensus than actually exists. Also, there is clear evidence of a resurgence of capitalist values in political elite debates since the debut of the Reagan administration. Whether this resurgence is temporary, as the authors suggest, or represents a more basic shift in public thinking, is impossible to determine without more-current survey data. If there is a basic shift, is it primarily in a libertarian or in a conservative direction? Fortunately, the thoroughness of this study provides scholars excellent baselines from which to answer these questions when new surveys are undertaken.

Stuart Lilie, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, is the coauthor of Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum.