It is possible to juxtapose images from the fall of communism in a way that deflates the whole event. Yeltsin standing atop the tank, compared with the opening of McDonald's in Moscow; young people dancing on the Berlin Wall, compared with the hordes of East Germans pouring into West Berlin to shop—these and other images raise a question whether the triumph of freedom is, ultimately, the triumph of something mundane and even banal.
There is no doubt that these convulsive times have thrown forth giants and heroes: Walesa, Wojtyla, Havel, Sakharov, Yeltsin. As the lives of these men epitomize, there is greatness and inspiration to be found in the overthrow of a monstrous tyranny. What is less clear, however, is whether the new order now being established will itself be capable of greatness, whether it can provide new sources of inspiration.
We are currently witnessing, not only in Eastern Europe but around the world, the triumph of capitalism, the system of economic freedom. Communism, the great revolt against spontaneous market order, has finally been quashed. Elsewhere, in what has been called the developing world, socialistic autarky is being abandoned in favor of linkage to the international capitalist economy. The free-market system has become, to an extent never before matched, an integrated global phenomenon. Moreover, its fundamental institutions have at present no serious rivals. It is timely, therefore, to step back from the buzz of recent events and think about the larger significance of the capitalist ascendancy. Communism may be terrible, Third World poverty may be terrible, but how good is bourgeois commercial society?
Capitalism since its inception has been derided as a spiritually stunted system. The bill of indictment is familiar: Commercial society is driven by the base motivation of greed; it replaces the vital and organic human connections of family, community, nation, and faith with the attenuated and flimsy bond of the cash nexus; it debases life by reducing everything in its sphere to dollars and cents; it panders to the lowest common denominator of mass tastes, elevating the tawdry and vulgar over the lofty and original; and, in the end, it serves no higher end than the mindless accumulation of things.
These attacks on commercial society have come from both left and right. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie "has left no other bond between man and man but crude self-interest and callous 'cash payment.' It has drowned pious zeal, chivalrous enthusiasm and popular sentimentalism in the chill waters of selfish calculation."
Nietzsche, operating from diametrically opposed premises, arrived at an equally vociferous denunciation of capitalist society. He heaped contempt on the conformist banality of the "last man": "No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse."
To be sure, capitalism has its characteristic vices; even the most fervent defender of the market economy would be hard-pressed to argue that the litany of complaints cited above is wholly without merit. The pettiness of greed is visible at every socioeconomic level in the obsession with status symbols and the foolishness of brand-name snobbery; the destructiveness of greed can be seen in the lives of all those who feel trapped in well-paying but unrewarding jobs. The hollowness of the cash nexus is well-known to anyone who was raised in the rootedness and familiarity of a small town and who now runs the rat race of anonymous and impersonal urban existence.
To take just one example of metastatic commercialism: College football was long ago corrupted by money, but the corruption has now attained an almost sublime absurdity with the renaming of bowl games after corporate sponsors, e.g., the "USF&G Sugar Bowl" and—unbelievably—the "Poulan Weedeater Independence Bowl." As to cultural vulgarity, take your pick: Geraldo, professional wrestling, the National Enquirer, the Elvis cult, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and so on ad nauseum.
Although obsessive materialism and crass commercialism are undeniably a part of modern capitalism, they do not constitute its whole. To condemn commercial society as nothing but an empty rush for things is to engage in caricature and distortion. There is much more to capitalism than things: Capitalism is also about creativity, ingenuity, dedication, and perseverance; it is about teamwork and competition; it is about the fulfillment gained from working hard to do a job well; it is about pursuing your dreams, however humble or grand. Commercial life, at its best, generates spiritual as well as material abundance.
This spiritual element of capitalism has been obscured by pervasive misunderstanding of how the wealth-creation process works. The enemies and disparagers of capitalism have generally made the mistake of regarding the creation of wealth as a mechanistic and automatic process. In the Marxist view, productivity and growth result from the operation of unalterable historical laws. The capitalist phase of development has "solved" the "problem" of production once and for all; all that remains is to ensure that the fruits of this production are enjoyed by the right people. Never was this determinist conception of wealth-creation more glaringly evident than in Lenin's hopelessly naive picture of socialist production: He thought that the requirements for planning and running an economy had already been "simplified by capitalism to the utmost, till they have become the extraordinarily simple operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within the reach of anybody who can read and write and knows the first four arithmetical rules."
In today's dominant conventional wisdom, economic vitality is seen as a function of macroeconomic variables such as interest rates, trade balances, budget deficits, and exchange rates. In what Tom Bethell calls "hydraulic economics," bureaucrats keep the big GNP machine humming along by moving these macroeconomic levers about as changing conditions dictate.
Such mechanistic understandings of economic life miss entirely the continuing and ever-expanding dependence of capitalism on human creativity. In particular, they fail to grasp the central role of the entrepreneur in driving capitalist production. The source of all capitalist wealth creation is the new idea: the invention of a new product, the development of a new production technique, the exploitation of a new market. It is the entrepreneur who takes the idea, often his own, and transforms it into reality, staking his time and money, as well as others', all on the belief that the idea has value.
In the words of Joseph Schumpeter: "To undertake such new things is difficult and constitutes a distinct economic function, first, because they lie outside of the routine tasks which everybody understands and, secondly, because the environment resists in many ways that vary, according to social conditions, from simple refusal either to finance or to buy a new thing, to physical attack on the man who tries to produce it. To act with confidence beyond the range of familiar beacons and to overcome that resistance requires aptitudes that are present in only a small fraction of the population and that define the entrepreneurial type as well as the entrepreneurial function."
The motive force of capitalism, then, is not some historical autopilot, or the fine-tuning of technocrats, but rather the power of entrepreneurial imagination: first, the power to conceive some new vision of untapped possibilities, and then the will to remold reality in conformity with that vision. Apposite in this regard is Michael Novak's observation that the root of the word capitalism is caput, or head: The market process, contrary to what its detractors say, is fundamentally a spiritual phenomenon.
The great innovators of capitalism possess a species of genius no less real than the genius that animates great works of art, or great discoveries of science, or great acts of statesmanship. We see this genius, historically, in such people as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Edison, and Ford, men whose vision carried them "beyond the range of familiar beacons" and into new worlds of their own making.
Interestingly, Schumpeter himself, the great champion of the entrepreneur, mistakenly believed that entrepreneurship was becoming obsolete, that innovation was being routinized within the R&D departments of giant corporations. Inspiration and intellectual daring, he feared, were giving way to tepid bureaucratic rationality. What Schumpeter failed to see was that bureaucratic inertia would frequently render large corporations resistant to necessary change. As a result, the creative genius, the outsider with a vision and no stake in the status quo, remains an essential element of capitalist vitality: Witness, in our own day, such examples as Steven Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Ken Iverson of Nucor, and Ted Turner of CNN.
The spiritual energy that produces material wealth is by no means limited to a handful of tycoons, or even to the entrepreneurial economic function. Those who implement the entrepreneurial vision must also contribute their creativity and dedication if the vision is to succeed. The amount of knowledge and skill required to run a modern capitalist economy, with its amazing complexity and diversity of production, is enormous and must by necessity be widely distributed. While manual, unskilled labor is still needed, it has been consigned to the margins of economic life. To an ever-increasing extent, the continuing vitality of commercial society hinges on the mental effort of vast numbers of people.
Commercial society thus requires a large spiritual investment from its participants. Workers must do more than use their muscles or follow explicit instructions by rote; they must hone their skills, think things out for themselves, take initiative, assume responsibility. This spiritual investment brings spiritual benefits: namely, the fulfillment that arises from developing and exercising one's capabilities to surmount a challenge.
Charles Murray, in his book In Pursuit, builds his discussion of the preconditions of happiness around Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. At the summit of this hierarchy, above simple subsistence and physical security, above emotional intimacy and self-respect, is something Maslow called "self-actualization." In essence, this concept refers to the basic need of human beings to "realize their potential"—to develop talents and abilities and then use them, to be good at something that is hard to do. Murray quotes the philosopher John Rawls, who in turn was paraphrasing Aristotle: "Other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity."
In other words, human beings need challenges; they need to take on tasks that stretch and expand their abilities. As Murray says, "Challenge is a resource for meeting the human need called enjoyment, just as food is a resource for meeting the human need called nourishment. If one measure of a good society is its production and distribution of food, another measure of a good society is its production and distribution of challenges."
Capitalism, then, by creating opportunities for demanding and challenging work, creates opportunities for "self-actualization." By asking that people apply themselves to develop special skills or expertise, the free market gives them the chance to savor the mastery of something difficult.
The spiritual richness that is possible in commercial life—the interplay between effort and reward—is nowhere more grippingly portrayed than in Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize–winning (and aptly titled) Soul of a New Machine. Kidder tells the story of engineers at Data General Corp. and their efforts during the late '70s to build a new generation of minicomputers. The book reads like a thriller, yet there are no chase scenes or shootouts or mysterious women or dark conspiracies; most of the action takes place in a windowless basement computer lab. What drives the plot is the competitive threat of archrival Digital Equipment Corp., corporate intrigue within Data General, and, above all, the intellectual drama of designing and debugging a complicated new machine under crushing time constraints.
What comes across so compellingly in Kidder's account is that this year-and-a-half-long project—with its long hours and no overtime pay and all its stress and frustrations—was an ennobling experience for those who participated. As Kidder says near the end of the book:
"Presumably the stonemasons who raised the cathedrals worked only partly for their pay. They were building temples to God. It was the sort of work that gave meaning to life. That's what West and his team of engineers were looking for, I think. They themselves liked to say they didn't work on their machine for money. In the aftermath, some of them felt that they were receiving neither the loot nor the recognition they had earned. But when they talked about the project itself, their enthusiasm returned. It lit up their faces….
"Many looked around for words to describe their true reward. They used such phrases as 'self-fulfillment,' 'a feeling of accomplishment,' 'self-satisfaction.' Jim Guyer struggled with those terms awhile with growing impatience. Then he said: 'Look, I don't have to get official recognition for anything I do. Ninety-eight percent of the thrill comes from knowing that the thing you designed works, and works almost the way you expected it would. If that happens, part of you is in that machine.'"
This kind of feeling about one's job is familiar to anyone who enjoys challenging work. It's not necessary to be building a new computer to devote your talent and energy to achieving some goal, and to experience the fulfillment that comes from this devotion. Moreover, as Murray points out, it's not necessary that your work involve abstract analysis or require "book knowledge." You can enjoy being a truck driver or steelworker or carpenter with the skills and know-how necessary to do your job well. What matters is that you find the work interesting and engaging, and that you have some control over and responsibility for what you do. Without these things, there's no you in your job; with these things, working for a living can involve your soul as well as your body and mind.
Of course, fulfillment on the job is by no means universal, and may even be the exception rather than the rule. There are jobs so menial or routine that almost nobody could enjoy them. There are organizations and bosses that, whether through malevolence or incompetence, can make working life miserable. There are workaholics, whose compulsive devotion to their jobs leaves the rest of their lives to atrophy. There are people stuck in the wrong line of work. And there are all too many people who don't commit enough of themselves to make their jobs enjoyable: the lazy, the incompetent, the time servers, and the buck passers.
No social system, though, can guarantee happiness for everybody. What capitalism does accomplish is to create wide and varied opportunities for rewarding and satisfying work; moreover, it does a reasonably good job of meshing external, material inducements with the conduct that generates internal, spiritual rewards. First of all, from the individual's perspective, the incentives of commercial society (material benefits and the status that comes from being successful) encourage people to take precisely those actions—working hard, taking initiative, assuming responsibility—that make work fulfilling. Moreover, commercial enterprises that address the spiritual needs of their workers—by giving them some degree of control over what they do—tend to be more productive, and hence more successful, than businesses that treat their workers like machines.
The spiritual richness of the market economy is most apparent when comparing it, not against some imagined utopia, but against other real-life social systems. Communism, the attempt to subsume all economic life within the centralized state, was not only a failure at material production; more fundamentally, it was a spiritually impoverished system. In the first place, the pervasive, leaden bureaucracy necessitated by central control stifled initiative and the assumption of responsibility, thereby robbing work of the pleasures that come from committing oneself to the job. Bureaucracy is a serious problem even in the capitalist workplace; it is ubiquitous and fatally hypertrophic under communism.
More basically, the suppression of economic incentives radically transformed the nature of work: Neither the quality of one's own work, nor the overall productiveness of one's organization, had much if any connection with one's job security or advancement. Ideology and terror were occasional substitutes for economic motivation, but the former took hold only with a small minority, and the latter was inflicted systematically only for limited periods of time. For most people and most of the time, the communist modus vivendi was "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." Nothing was at stake in one's working life; job success was no longer a value to be earned or lost. There was no social context within which it made sense to do a job well, or take pride in a job well done; work was drained of all its meaning and reduced to absurd, Sisyphean labor. Communism, which purported to redeem working life from alienation, consigned it instead to an alienation virtually universal and complete.
Now that communism, the self-proclaimed system of the future, has been thoroughly discredited, those who reject commercial society are increasingly turning to the precapitalist past in search of an alternative. In particular, the growing radical environmental movement derives much of its power from nostalgia for the simplicity and certainty of the traditional village economy. All of which raises the question: Capitalism has clearly brought material riches, but does it represent a spiritual improvement over rural communal life?
Admittedly, the village economy offered some spiritual advantages that are currently in rather short supply: most notably, rootedness in kin and community and organic connection to one's work. There was no conflict between pursuing one's career and living close to family and friends: People were born, lived, and died within a few miles' radius. There was none of the dehumanizing impersonality that afflicts urban life today: Within the village, everybody knew everybody else. And there were no nagging doubts about one's career choices: Most people did exactly the same thing—grow their own food—and the "meaning" of this work was as obvious as a stomach pang. While traditional society may have been afflicted with oppression, misery, and ignorance, alienation wasn't a problem.
But if life used to be less unsettling and fretful than today, it was also less interesting and spiritually challenging. God knows that life was challenging enough in the physical sense: Most people had to engage in unremitting, backbreaking toil just to keep fed, clothed, and housed. The demands on people's mental abilities, though, were modest. There were skilled artisans and craftsmen, yes, but they were a demographically marginal lot; the vast majority of the population was absorbed in basic subsistence agriculture. This work, by and large, was a matter of exhausting physical labor, requiring minimal skills or knowledge.
To some extent peasant life did require craft and folk wisdom, but such demands were limited and essentially static. The average peasant lived just as his parents and grandparents before him; the crops he planted, the tools he used, the farming methods he followed were all part of a received tradition passed down from time immemorial. Moreover, economic life was as simple as it was unchanging. Since the elemental task of growing food consumed so much energy, the division of labor was necessarily rudimentary; only a few basic goods and services were produced for exchange. Accordingly, there was no need or place in the village economy for specialized technical knowledge, or complex analysis, or original thinking, or independent judgment, or personal initiative, or responding to swiftly changing circumstances—in short, for any of those forms of spiritual exertion that are ubiquitous in the dynamic complexity of modern capitalism.
Thus far, we have focused only on the spiritual qualities inherent in the actual process of capitalist wealth creation. Now it is time to look at the motivations that underlie this process. The caricature of market society identifies simple avarice as the low and vulgar foundation on which all rests. Is that really all there is?
Greed, no doubt, is an all too familiar presence in modern commercial life, and this is what makes the caricature seem plausible. But there is something else driving capitalist society—something much more vital and inspiring, and arguably much more potent, than mere acquisitiveness. This thing is ambition, or competitive spirit: the desire to better oneself and be better than others.
Clearly, people do work in order to acquire things: most basically, to put food on the table and to pay the rent, but also to get that CD player, or a new car, or a family vacation, or a bigger house. But just as clearly, people work in order to compete: to be a success, to measure up, to move up in the world, to make one's mark. When someone gets a coveted job or wins a big promotion, he is likely to feel competitive exhilaration at having won, as well as excitement about things he can now buy (indeed, the coveted job may entail a pay cut). Likewise, a person who is fired or laid off feels not only the threat of economic hardship but also the spiritual emptiness of failure. Sometimes, the act of acquisition itself satisfies a competitive urge. For example, buying a home or an expensive car can give you the feeling of having "arrived."
Ambition in commercial life is most obvious in the lives of corporate moguls, particularly those who started their own businesses. Such individuals put the lie to the notion that commercial life is all pettiness and crabbed, narrow calculation. Simple avarice cannot explain why billionaires continue to strive to expand their enterprises, and indeed it is commonplace for business giants to say that they aren't in it for the money, that money is simply a means of keeping score. What drives such people is ambition: the desire to build an empire, or even to remake the world.
Over 200 years ago, Adam Smith identified the role played by ambition in driving commercial life when he noted that "the rich man glorifies in his riches" while "the poor man, on the contrary, is ashamed of his poverty." According to Smith, "It is the vanity, not the ease or the pleasure, which interests us."
Commercial ambition is by no means an unalloyed virtue. It has its darker and dangerous side. Obsession with status, with what other people think of you, is unhealthy and repellent. And winning at all costs—forsaking family, friends, and outside interests for the sake of career success—is a spiritually Pyrrhic victory. Nevertheless, competitive spirit, in its proper place, is a powerful force for good in commercial society; it unleashes human energies and imparts to life a bracing and vital dynamism.
The salutary effects of ambition can be seen in the struggles of immigrants who have come to this country to make new lives for themselves; in the overtime and scrimping that allow a couple to put their children through college; in the man who builds a family business that he can pass on to another generation; in the woman who goes to night school while holding down a full-time job; in the conscientiousness and dedication it takes to make the sale, land the contract, meet the deadline, or turn out the defect-free product; and in the titanic productivity of the entrepreneurial innovator. The common theme here is the pursuit of a dream, whether modest or grandiose, of bettering oneself or one's lot in life.
Again, comparison with other social systems is instructive. In traditional rural society, there was no place for ambition among the great preponderance of the population. With a more or less static economy, the large peasant class had no prospect for upward mobility. People were enmeshed in obligations that kept them securely in their proper station: ties to the land, to one's lord, to family and community. The whole idea of breaking from your past and "reinventing" yourself was utterly foreign; personal identity was based on knowing your place, not making your own way.
Competitive spirit was confined to the ranks of the nobility and found its outlet predominantly in the quest for military glory. This chivalric code enshrined ambition in its most extreme form: namely, the willingness to kill or be killed to prove one's superiority to others.
It may be argued that the aristocratic ethos represented human ambition at its most sublime: There is perhaps no act more inspirational than the willingness to risk one's life. Accordingly, it is tempting to romanticize the social system that produced this ethos and, by comparison, to scorn our own commercial order, in which people risk only money. Edmund Burke, who in his cooler moments was an admirer of Adam Smith, expressed this sentiment in his famous lines: "But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever."
Thomas Paine, though, in his reply to Burke, got the better of the exchange: "He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird." While the highs may have been higher in the ancien régime, the lows were abysmally lower, and the lows were the general rule. Chivalry may have been exquisite, but its beauty fades in the larger view when one sees the killing and waste it produced and the stagnation, passivity, and resignation on which it rested. Commercial society, by allowing general participation in a competitive and dynamic social order, offers the ambitious pursuit of self-improvement to high and low alike. The stakes may be lower, and thus the winning less glorious, but many more people get to play, and the contest now produces affluence and comfort rather than death and destruction.
In his provocative new book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama identifies ambition, which he calls thymos or the desire for "recognition," as the crux of historical conflict. Influenced by Hegel, he bases his philosophy of history on a version of the state of nature, in which men battle not for simple self-preservation, but for recognition—to have their dignity as human beings recognized by others. In other words, men fight for ambition, to prove their superiority. Instead of leading to a consensual social contract, this battle leads to the relationship of lordship and bondage: The masters are those who were willing to risk death for honor, the slaves, those who succumbed to fear of death.
Fukuyama treats this battle for prestige between "first men" as both theoretical construct and quasi-historical: "Many traditional aristocratic societies initially arose out of the 'warrior ethos' of nomadic tribes who conquered more sedentary peoples through superior ruthlessness, cruelty, and bravery. After the initial conquest, the masters in subsequent generations settled down on estates and assumed an economic relationship as landlords….But the warrior ethos—the sense of innate superiority based on the willingness to risk death—remained the essential core of the culture of aristocratic societies the world over, long after years of peace and leisure allowed these same aristocrats to degenerate into pampered and effeminate courtiers."
Thus, the initial resolution of the struggle for recognition resulted in the traditional social order: the large class of peasant "slaves" underneath and the small band of aristocratic "masters" on top. This dispensation was inherently unstable, though, for it was riven with internal "contradictions": The vast majority of the population was denied recognition altogether, and the masters had won recognition only from their inferiors, whom they did not regard as fully human.
The historical solution to this dilemma emerged in the form of liberal commercial society. This new order abolished the distinction between master and slave by making the former slaves their own masters and by establishing the principles of popular sovereignty and the rule of law. The inherently unequal recognition of masters and slaves is replaced by universal and reciprocal recognition, where every citizen recognizes the dignity and humanity of every other citizen and where that dignity is recognized in turn by the state through the granting of rights.
Liberalism, through its system of rights, represents the optimal solution to the conflict over recognition: No one is recognized as superior, but everyone is recognized as equal (under the law, at least). And by opening up unlimited prospects for economic growth, liberalism tames the unruly force of ambition by exalting instead the force of desire (i.e., greed). With ambition thus sated and defanged, historical conflict comes to an end, according to Fukuyama, in the modern commercial republic: "The historical process that begins with the master's bloody battle ends in some sense with the modern bourgeois inhabitant of contemporary liberal democracies, who pursues material gain rather than glory."
Fukuyama wonders, though, whether this is such a good thing. He questions whether history's end point is Nietzsche's contemptible "last man," who seeks nothing but comfortable self-preservation and forsakes everything noble about humanity: daring, risk, inspiration, and struggle. To use George Will's turn of phrase, he questions whether liberalism has escaped from barbarism only to fall into banality. In the end, Fukuyama defends liberalism against the Nietzschean critique, arguing that modern commercial society contains sufficient outlets for ambition—namely, entrepreneurship, democratic politics, and such purely "formal" activities as athletic competition—for it to retain at least a moderate vitality.
It is certainly appropriate to worry about the banality of modern life, and Fukuyama's view of liberalism's triumph as problematic is refreshingly bracing. Nevertheless, I believe he misconstrues the role of ambition in commercial society, and accordingly takes a bit too dim a view of the capitalist ascendancy. (My doubts about whether history has in fact ended are beyond the scope of this article.)
Fukuyama properly regards commercial society as having domesticated ambition: Where ambition once sought martial glory, it now serves the pursuit of gain. But this is a crucial point: Ambition has not been replaced by desire (as Fukuyama contends); it has been married to it. As discussed above, commercial life is motivated as much by competitive spirit—the desire to win, to improve oneself, to exceed others—as it is by mundane acquisitiveness. Ambition that risks money may be less lofty than that which risks life, but it is no less real.
Accordingly, liberalism has in fact ushered in a fantastic expansion of ambition's role in social affairs: Where once it was the preserve of a tiny aristocratic minority, it is now ubiquitous. Daring, risk, inspiration, and struggle have not been extinguished; they can be found in every nook and cranny of the capitalist economy. The apparent decline of thymos is an illusion caused by focusing only on the fate of the old nobility.
Liberalism, far from enervating ambition, awoke and roused it in quarters where before it had never stirred. It is woefully incomplete to portray the liberal project, as Fukuyama does, as an effort "to convince the aristocratic warrior of the vanity of his ambitions, and to transform him into a peaceful businessman." The far greater part of the project was to liberate the mass of mankind from torpor and stagnation by incorporating it into the market.
This wider view of liberalism, and the greater good it serves, was movingly described by Alexis de Tocqueville in the concluding chapter of his Democracy in America: "When the world was full of men of great importance and extreme insignificance, very wealthy and very poor, very learned and very ignorant, I turned my attention from the latter to concentrate on the pleasure of contemplating the former. But I see that this pleasure arose from my weakness….
"It is natural to suppose that not the particular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. What seems to me decay is thus in His eyes progress; what pains me is acceptable to Him. Equality may be less elevated, but it is more just, and in its justice lies its greatness and beauty."
Let's descend now from these metaphysical heights, and, in closing, consider the issue again in a more concrete way. The skeptical reader may still harbor the suspicion that all this rhetoric about creative genius and self-actualization and vaulting ambition is just whistling in the dark, that at bottom there is still the very mundane reality of fast-food restaurants, accountants, and toaster salesmen.
Fair enough, to a degree. I never wanted to argue that commerce could replace art or religion or philosophy in the quest for transcendent meaning. Commerce does concern the worldly, and thus will always have a practical and prosaic quality to it. But if you think this means that capitalism is spiritually empty, you're wrong—as any sports fan should understand.
If you are a sports fan—say, a devoted follower of college basketball—then you understand that what makes the game enjoyable and worthwhile has very little to do with its immediate object. The standard complaint of the nonfan—"Why would anyone want to watch a bunch of overgrown men running around and bouncing a ball and trying to stick it through a hoop?"—will convince you of nothing except that the speaker doesn't understand the game. If you were feeling analytical, you might explain to him that his grasp of the game is stuck in a reductionist rut, that what makes the game so fun is the amazing skill, the fluidity of teamwork, the excitement of competition. Or you might just turn up the volume on the remote control and hope he goes away.
So it is with commerce. Yes, it's about buying and selling things, just as basketball is about overgrown men and bouncing balls. But it's also about much more: It, too, is about amazing skill, the fluidity of teamwork, the excitement of competition. If you can't see this, you just don't understand the game.
Brink Lindsey is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Personal Best".