Image Problems


Everyone knows that legendary impresario P.T. Barnum coined the saying, "There's a sucker born every minute." Well, not exactly. In Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery (Princeton University Press), John Mueller points out not only that Barnum never uttered such a phrase, but that it would have been seriously out of character if he had. Despite a few high-profile "humbugs" early in Barnum's career, notes Mueller, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, the showman actually made his fortune "by providing a good, honest show that people appreciated and were quite happy to patronize year after year."

Mueller's revisionist view of Barnum exemplifies the considerable appeal of Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, which explores the peculiar "image problems" of democracy and free-market capitalism. "Capitalism," writes Mueller "is much better than its image, while democracy has turned out to be much worse than its image." Often witty and always interesting, Mueller's recent book is a captivating inquiry into the "significant, and often detrimental, consequences" of such fundamental misperceptions. Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie recently spoke with Mueller via phone.

Q: Capitalism—market-based exchange—has generally increased standards of living. So why do people dislike it so much?

A: There's been several millennia of hostility directed toward capitalism—by intellectuals, the church, and others. It's almost a built-in assumption that capitalism is filled with lying and deceiving and fraud. And some capitalists have actually lived that way. It can also be a fairly grubby sort of existence, very methodical and mundane. As such, it goes against many of the more classical virtues of martial heroism and the like. From an intellectual standpoint, what businesspeople do isn't very theoretically exciting or enlightening. The idea of sitting around coffeehouses thinking of Great Ideas is much more appealing.

Q: Why does democracy get such a good rap?

A: I'm not sure it does. Rather, people continue to expect too much of it. They really expect something that has basically never happened in history. Large numbers of people have never participated in politics, and it's never really been the case that most people know what's going on. It's a contest among special interests that is never really resolved. I'm all for encouraging more people to vote, but the book argues that democracy will never be something in which everyone will participate and in which everyone will have equal influence. That's simply impossible.

Q: Do you think people are waking up to the idea that the images of democracy and capitalism are off-base?

A: I don't know if the images are changing all that much. I do think the idea of getting rich is generally being accepted as an important thing, which is good; if people are concerned with their material well-being, they're less likely to start wars, for instance. As for democracy, all you hear about are the evils of special interests, how we have to restrict them, and how not enough people participate. But I don't hear anyone saying that special interests are us—that special interests are what democracy is all about.