- How the anti-communist alliances of the Cold War have ended David Goodhart, Literary Review
- The end of interest (and capitalism) John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
- The democratic road to socialism Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- Masks, pollution, and implied consent Johnathan Pearce, Samizdata
- Yalta: one of the greatest wrongs of history David Reynolds, New Statesman
- Individualism does not necessarily imply small government Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- On socially influenced preferences Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- A better defense of capitalism “djf,” askblog (comments)
Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, and so forth and so forth. The list of successful entrepreneurs who have become household names is long. To an extent they are the heroes of capitalism, they succeeded, often against all odds, though often with crucial help of far more unknown others, yet they did it and changed whole industries, if not the lives of all people on the globe.
Capitalism is about freedom, to have the liberty to start a business, to start selling a new product or new service. Or if you’re a big company: the freedom to buy somebody’s else’s idea, or to invest huge amounts into research, development, and/or (re)design. It is one of the most important pillars of our civilization, this process built on economic freedom, trade, specialization, barter, openness for odd things or tolerance for people who venture into new directions. Despite many setbacks, opposing ideas and much room for improvement, all around the globe, it still all adds up to what we are now: the richest and most healthy people in the world of all times. And this is not meant teleological, it is certainly not the end of the development, there is more to come, of course.
However, capitalism is built on failure. It is only in a limited number about the success stories, in far more cases it is about hard failure. For every success there are many more failures, people who went bust, companies that did not make it. In the US this is a fact more known and far more accepted than in Europe. Here, if you went broke, you would be indebted for the rest of your life and seen as a social failure as well. Happily, that stigma is not as strong as it used to be, but it is sure not out of existence either.
Therefore, the true heroes of capitalism are those who fail. The men and women who put in their life savings, or take a big loan, to start a business, or take over a franchise, or what have you. Working their ass off, taking risks, without any sight on a certain reward. Also, at least here in The Netherlands and surely elsewhere too, without the social security that employees may count on.
Still, they go for it, they chase their dream, to remain independent, because they hate to work for a boss or manager, because they believe in their great idea, because they want to get rich, or a combination of these elements. And then they fail, have to fire their personnel who depend on them, they can’t pay the bills anymore, file for bankruptcy, and have to accept that their dream is over.
That is hard. I want to congratulate them though. Because without them, our capitalist system would remain static, since no new ideas would drip into the economy. In short: capitalism would grind to a hold. So thank you, all you failed entrepreneurs, for putting in the effort, for trying and working hard. You are true heroes.
Scarcity is merely contempt for that which is easily obtained.
~ Seneca (attributed)
While I am aware that many of the NOL writers do not agree with Jordan Peterson, I think he is correct when he says that many of the contemporary problems faced by society are the product of prosperity. The essence of his argument is that in an evolutionary sense mankind has two sets of priorities: 1) necessities of life and 2) social standing attached to life meaning. For the first time in history, we are living at a point where the necessities of physically staying alive, e.g. housing, food, medical care, etc. are obtainable and now people are free to fixate on the second set of priorities. The point where I personally diverge from Peterson and those of a traditional “conservative” inclination is that I do not think it is incumbent upon broader society to provide a sense of meaning or status for others.
In an interview with Christina Hoff Sommers and Danielle Crittenden of AEI for their Femsplainers podcast, Peterson illustrated his argument with an anecdote from his childhood on the Canadian plains. He described how, despite college being free in Canada at the time, he was the only one from his high school class to go onto tertiary education. Some but not all of the cause, he said, was ignorance. He observed that much of the reasoning related to an inability to delay gratification. At the time, his hometown was an oil center and was flush with money from the boom of the 1980s. Consequently, going to work immediately and making a lot of money was more attractive for high school seniors than was attending university. For the next decade this strategy worked. But, as Peterson recounted, when he was in the final year of his PhD, two things happened: 1) the wells supporting the town ran dry and 2) the oil bubble burst.
Unsurprisingly, what were a blip on the radar and a minor hiccup in the global and historical scope were disastrous for Peterson’s hometown. What became apparent in the fallout was a softening of character and mind. Counterintuitively, men who had no problem rising at 4:00 AM and working in subzero temperatures for sixteen hours were shown to be fragile in the face of greater adversity. Having manufactured an identity that emphasized the pointlessness of skill acquisition but also placed great importance upon high income, these beneficiaries of the oil bubble were devastated when their incomes disappeared and their lack of relevant skills left them unemployable and consequently without status. In the following decades, the town became one of many others of the rustbelt variety, plagued by unemployment, substance abuse, and apathy. It was this sequence that Peterson said caused him to start thinking in terms of the evolutionary stages of development. For us, the most relevant takeaway is the limitations of money on conferring status.
As Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874 – 1971) wrote in his article “Influences affecting the development of thrift (1907)” in which he lamented the loss of capitalist mentality among the American people,
It is obvious that the more closely society is knit together, the greater the influence of social standards upon economic conduct. The solitary frontiersman shapes his economic conduct with very little regard for the opinion of other frontiersmen with whom he may occasionally associate. The one rich man in a community of poor men is scarcely at all under the dominance of social economic standards.
Saunders ultimately concluded that increased status anxiety or social dissatisfaction was, however counterintuitively, a sign of progress. After all, the real life of a frontiersman was quite different from that romanticized in Zane Grey books. Therefore, assuming that no one really wants to live a subsistence existence, a world in which people are materially comfortable, even if subjected to social pressures, is inherently better.
The concerns induced by social pressure are external to material wellbeing since a positive environment for the latter ensures that people can live above subsistence without difficulty. Social pressure is hardly objective, and because of its variable nature, symbolized in Johnson’s essay by a “suburbanite touring car,” which was both unproductive and quickly superseded by newer vehicles, sweeping claims about feelings of social pressure must be denied validity. Johnson presented the thirst, which he observed in 1907, for status symbols as both positive and negative. Positive because it indicated greater prosperity; Negative because it created a different set of societal problems. As society became increasingly removed from a subsistence existence, the human cycle of craving and acquisition – which in a hunter-gatherer environment meant survival of winter – developed into an obstacle, rather than a necessary tool. The contemporary extension to Johnson’s line of reasoning correlates to Peterson’s assertion that the fixation of broader society on status is a natural sequitur to achieving a level of prosperity sufficient for the basic needs of all to be addressed.
While the topic of interest to Johnson was thrift and capitalist mentality, or rather the lack of it, on the part of the American people, his essay contained an interesting and pertinent observation regarding land practices. Remembering that he wrote this particular essay in 1907, he remarked on an agricultural real estate bubble existing in the Midwest, his native region. The reason he thought it was important was that he maintained it demonstrated two points in the spending-thrift, status- (genuine) capitalist paradigm. Property prices and valuations had risen, he argued, past the productive potential and therefore market value of the real estate in question. This rise was driven, he said, by the farmers themselves who spent lavishly on land because of an association of ownership with status, even if they were then unable to use the land effectively and therefore unable to recoup the investment. He predicted that land purchased under these circumstances was not a good investment. Further he added that when the bubble collapsed, not only would there be monetary loses, there would also be ego and identity crises as those farmers who saw the value of their holdings diminish would feel as though they had lost social standing, even if they didn’t lose a single acre. However since, Johnson observed that many of the farmers he knew, and upon whom he based his hypotheses, had repeatedly mortgaged their current holdings in order to buy additional pieces, the economist predicted property forfeiture as well.
A prototype Austrian economist, though born and raised on the Nebraska plains, Johnson made no moral judgements about the acquisitive instinct or the needless purchase of property. The pettiness exemplified by Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929) and his claim that curved driveways was a pointless display of wealth and status because they used space that might be put to better use (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899) was simply not a factor in Johnson’s works. Johnson’s conclusion on improper land acquisition and use was based purely on dollars and cents: for a farmer, unprofitable land was not an investment, and no amount of wishful thinking would make it into one. Johnson’s predictions about an impending time of property price collapse and hurt egos came to pass in the 1920s with the agricultural depression, which was in full swing by 1924. The bubble burst was possibly delayed by World War I. The Dust Bowl and Great Depression of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was an epilogue to a situation that had begun many decades before.
In 1922, shortly before the agricultural bubble burst spectacularly, Johnson wrote another article, “The Promotion of Thrift in America,” in which he warned, again, that the American land-owning farmer was overleveraged. He also identified the existence of a tenant farmer class whose status was due to lending policies which encouraged current owners to become overleveraged through easy mortgages, thereby inflating property prices, but prevented first-time buyers from entering the market. The dispute between NIMBY and YIMBY is hardly new. To further exacerbate the situation, the agricultural sector had begun to receive federal subsidies as part of the war effort. While Johnson didn’t mention this in his article, the subsidies further distorted the connected real estate market as they made farming appear more profitable than it was. In response to criticism for his decision to refuse to subsidize agriculture in any way, Calvin Coolidge, who was desperately trying to salvage the American economy and took a firm anti-subsidy, anti-price control approach, said, “well, farmers never have made much money.” Johnson’s predictions from 1907 came true, but Coolidge’s 1926 decision on subsidies received the blame.
What relevance, one might reasonably ask, has a set of observations from 1907 on the investment attitudes of, primarily Midwestern, American farmers have today? Why should these observations be combined with comments on status, work, and society made by a controversial academic? The reason is best exemplified by Sen. Marco Rubio’s article in the National Review titled “The case for common good capitalism.” It was an apology of soft socialism swaddled in pseudo-religious sanctimony culled piecemeal from various Catholic encyclicals. Since Kevin Williamson already dissected the article and its flaws, there is no need to rebut Rubio at this juncture. The overarching thesis to Rubio’s piece is that society has robbed the working man of dignity. The logic is tangled, to say the least, and it crescendos to the conclusion that a shadowy, disembodied society has mugged the working man and taken his dignity (or sense of status). The basic equations appear to be as follows:
- burst property bubble = conspiracy to deny ownership, at least dignified ownership, to average Joe
- loss of jobs for unskilled labor = denial of right to work;
- lack of workforce-owned corporations = some vague travesty that is tied to denial of ownership.
For this last, Johnson in “The Promotion of Thrift in America” specifically mentioned such corporate arrangements as complete failures because they created hostility between employers and employees, and in fact reduced employee-loyalty, since the latter believed that such arrangements were intended to defraud them of their wages.
In his two articles, Johnson frankly
argued that only the middle-classes and up practiced thrift and engaged in
capital acquisition and investment. He dedicated most of “The Promotion of
Thrift in America” to expounding upon the ways that the “wage earners (polite
speak for working class back in the 1920s),” farmers, and the lower-middle
class not refused to pursue capitalist behavior but would respond with active
hostility when thrift campaigners (yes, there was an save-and-be-a-capitalist
campaign in the aftermath of World War I, right up there with the temperance
movement!) suggested that they should. The crux of the issue, one which Rubio’s
article refuses to recognize, is that, like in the 1920s, the roots of broader
societal complaints lie decades in the past. The efforts to create a quick fix
are therefore both futile and infantile. Every couple of decades a specific
subgroup, be it the overleveraged farmers of the early twentieth century or the
unskilled oil workers of Peterson’s youth, discovers that its values are defective
and that the signs its members believed to be markers of status are
liabilities. Eventually the price of the decisions built on these misplaced
values and symbols must be paid. In order for the payment to occur in a way
that does not unjustly burden the rest of society, we must recognize that the
scarcity experienced by the indebted subgroup lies more in their contempt for
the genuine capitalist way of life than in any wrong society has inflicted upon
 Despite attribution to Seneca, I have been unable to find this aphorism among his works currently in my library, and I would be very appreciative if someone could tell me in which work he wrote this phrase (if indeed he did).
 Interesting which of the two movements gained enough political clout to have its agenda inscribed in the Constitution.
In these times of increasing criticism on capitalism, all around the world, it might be wise to read this Cato essay, written by Robert Nozick.
- The moral economists and the critique of capitalism Katrina Navickas, London Review of Books
- Can you step in the same river twice? David Egan, Aeon
- Don’t forget about the indigenous populations Vincent Geloso, NOL
- Anthropology and the problem of the archives Morgan Greeen, JHIBlog
Paul Collier, the controversial Oxford professor famous for his development work and his acclaimed books Exodus and The Bottom Billion, is back. But the author of Exodus and The Bottom Billion is long gone. The compelling writing and carefully reasoned world that made Bottom Billion impossible to put down has somehow disappeared. In The Future of Capitalism, Collier is tired. He is bitter. And he is sometimes quite mad – so mad that his disdain for this or that group of thinkers or actors in society consumes his otherwise brilliant analytical mind.
Instead of having his editors moderate those of his worst impulses, he doubles down on his polemic conviction. Indeed, he takes pride in offending people in all political camps, believing that it supports the book’s main intellectual point: ideologues of every persuasion are dangerous, one-size-fits-all too constricted for a modern society and we should rather turn to a communitarian social democratic version of pragmatism – by which he means some confused mixture of ideas that seem to advocate “what works” on a case-by-case basis.
Yes, it’s about as nutty as it sounds. And he is all over the place, dabbling in all kinds of topics for which he is uniquely unqualified to offer advice: ethics, finance, education, family, social policy and on and on and on.
One reason The Future of Capitalism went awry might have been the remarkable scope: capturing all the West’s so-called ‘Anxieties’ – and their solutions – in little over 200 pages of non-academic prose. Given the topic, a very unfitting sort of hubris.
Apart from the feeble attempt at portraying a modern society that has “come apart at the seams,” there’s no visible story, no connection between the contents of one paragraph and the next and hardly any connection between one chapter and another. Rather, it’s a bedlam of foregone conclusions, appeals to pragmatism, dire stings to ideological ‘extremists’ on either side and a hubris unfitting for someone like Collier. I guess this is a risk that established academics run at the end of their careers, desperately trying to assemble all their work into One Grand Theory.
The most charitable thing I can say about Collier’s attempt is that it offers a lot of policy prescriptions – tax unearned land rents, tax-and-redistribute productivity increases, expand housing supply through local governments, have governments direct the Silicon Valley-clusters of tomorrow, cap mortgage finance, benefits for families, expand ethical responsibilities of firms, encourage marriage, create a new G6 (EU, US, Russia, India, Japan, China) that could overcome the global collective action problem (good luck with that!), expand Germanic vocational training and workers’ representation on company boards, embrace patriotism but never nationalism, detach ownership from control and place control with stakeholders (workers, suppliers, local homeowners).
The common denominator seems to be an imperative to do all these things that seem to have worked well in some time or place or utopia, conveniently ignore institutional or cultural reasons, while espousing all ideological positioning and political capture.
Just voicing the suggestions ought to spark at least some fruitful conversations.
Chapter 8, ostensibly concerned with the Class Divide, is an illuminating case study. It takes Collier about 36 pages (out of 37) to mention ‘class’ (not that I blame him: the concept is way too nebulous and politically infected to be meaningfully dealt with in such short space). Instead, Collier discusses all kinds of topics whose relevance to class is quite unclear: public policy for single mothers, German vocational training, lawyers and the rule of law, a Yorkshire project to encourage reading in school kids – not to mention a ten-page digression into the institution of marriage for stable families.
When his polemics, dry writing, unsupported analysis or incomprehensive treatment of a topic hasn’t put me off (I gave up on the book at least four times during the last couple of months), some of the picture Collier paints does resonate with me. There is a social and geographical divide in Britain: the economically flourishing South-East, dominated by the well-educated English and the cosmopolitan accents of almost every language on the planet, is posited against the collapsing towns of the backward Midlands or the North. If this divide is real – in support of which Collier offers next-to-no evidence – it is not clear to me that it wasn’t already captured in, say, David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere or Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality, or for that matter the countless of magazine articles trying to outline the fractures that Brexit unearthed about British society. Considering the effort those authors put into mapping their divides, Collier’s attempt seems frivolous.
He can do better. Much better.
My fellow Notewriter Rick is organising a summer reading group around Feyerabend’s Against Method. The equivalent Collier reading group could be aptly named Against Ideology.
Thus the Astor Place, like every other theater in the United States, was unable to make itself too exclusive. Its founders, like those who founded the republic itself, had to find a way to live with an equality that was democratic in nature. Democratic equality was, and is, a different monster than the equality Europeans had been grappling with since Late Antiquity (the tail end of the Roman Empire). The old equality was based on Christianity and on the feudalistic property rights regimes that undergirded Europe. Democratic equality, on the other hand, is based on notions of self-rule and on capitalistic property rights. Basically, in Western culture, free men and money replaced piety and honor when it came to mutual understandings of equality.
Please, read the rest.
This is from the communist Mexican artist Diego Rivera:
Created during the Great Depression, this one is almost too predictable. It’s beauty alone, though, makes it worthy of an afternoon with tea.
Now it is true. As I predicted some time ago, Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president. Bolsonaro is not the brightest guy in the room, but I believe he has some qualities a leader requires. Above all, Bolsonaro shows conviction, a quality central to leadership, as Albert Mohler observes. Bolsonaro has the conviction that socialism/communism is the wrong way, and that Brazil has to try an alternative. The alternative, he has grown to understand, is the free market.
In his first remarks as president, Bolsonaro said that Brazil is “leaving socialism.” Some Brazilian friends, even people with high education, found this quote preposterous. In their view, Brazil can’t abandon socialism because she never tried it. That’s quite scary! After almost two decades of rule of the Worker’s Party (PT) there are people in Brazil who believe that Brazil never tried socialism.
It must be observed that PT is a big party, with many internal tendencies. Still, historically the party has the objective of turning Brazil into a socialist country. It is quite shocking that some people haven’t realized this!
On the other hand, many Brazilians still charge capitalism for all the country’s problems. The difficulty with this is that, if we take capitalism as free-market, Brazil has never been capitalist. Brazil’s economic history, in a nutshell, is of government control of the economy.
One of the challenges Brazil has, as surprising as it may be, is to teach people what is socialism and what is capitalism. The other is to make people understand that socialism is just bad. It has been tried. It failed, as it should. Capitalism, understood as economic freedom, worked everywhere. And there is no reason to believe that it wouldn’t work in Brazil.
We fight for and against not men and things as they are, but for and against the caricatures we make of them.
~ Joseph A. Schumpeter
One hurdle to public discourse that is underrecognized and must be addressed is the simple fact that individuals in the broader population don’t really know what they want. There is often no clear center of self-awareness. Instead, the peer and peer-driven media substitute for personal and communal identity. On the one hand, this situation has existed throughout history without imperiling the human species. On the other hand, this is an era of mass media and peer influence. Therefore, examining role of the peer and its media, specifically social media, is important in a time of societal disruption and discontent.
In the Futurama–Simpsons crossover episode from November 2014, Homer Simpson tries to explain freemium games to the Futurama crew:
Okay, it starts free, right? Then you visit your friend’s game, and he’s got this awesome candy mansion. […] And you’re like, “99 cents?!” You bet I’d like one!” And that’s why I owe Clash of Candies $20,000.
The cartoon aptly summarizes the real-life effect the prevalence of the peer can have. Naturally, there is great comic potential in these situations, and the Simpsons creators capitalized appropriately. Though it is worth adding that the ongoing theme of Homer Simpson possessing a weak character not only made the above quote plausible, it might be a portent to the real problem.
Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservative Party wrote an article titled “Ctrl + Alt + Del. Conservatives must reboot capitalism,” in which she argued that the current capitalist arrangement has failed. Concerning the collapse of middle society towns and villages, in the face of growing prosperity in the metro areas she wrote:
How does a teenager living in a pit town with no pit, a steel town with no steel or a factory town where the factory closed its doors a decade ago or more, see capitalism working for them? Is the route for social advancement a degree, student debt, moving to London to spend more than half their take home pay on a room in a shared flat in Zone 6 and half of what’s left commuting to their stagnant-wage job every day; knowing there is precisely zero chance of saving enough to ever own their own front door?
Or is it staying put in a community that feels like it’s being hollowed out from the inside; schoolfriends moving away for work, library and post office closures and a high street marked by the repetitive studding of charity shop, pub, bookies and empty lot – all the while watching Rich Kids of Instagram on Channel 4 and footballers being bought and sold for more than the entire economy of a third world nation on Sky Sports News?
Not a single person familiar with this impossible choice should be surprised by the rise of the populist right and left, of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, with their simple, stick-it-to-the-broken-system narrative. This is what market failure piled upon social failure piled upon political failure looks like.
If the goal of government is to ensure that everyone has a job and paycheck, Davidson made some very good points. In fairness to her, the cultural attitude today, both in the US and the UK, does indeed tip toward the idea that it is the responsibility of government ministers, such as Davidson, to create magically a world of stable, predictable work and money. What Davidson caught but then also missed is that much of the desire of the people isn’t about money, jobs, or stability, it’s about “social advancement,” to use her own words.
Anyone who thinks that the workers of the old, idealized industrial world were spared non-material social concerns, or arriviste inclinations, is deluded about the course of social history. Nor, are such concerns a purely feminine pursuit, as the Victorians liked to think, supported in their belief by the works of authors such as Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot (nom de plume of Mary Ann Evans); William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, to a lesser extent, Ernest Hemmingway all made careers out of chronicling male social climbing. There is probably something significant about the fact that the second set of authors were all between-the-Wars Americans, but that will have to be set aside for now.
As Polly Mackenzie of the UK think tank Demos wrote, weighing in on the concept of the “working class identity crisis,”
If you’re one of those people who gets a bit misty eyed about the jobs of the past, how fantastic they were, and how they’ll never be replaced, I can hear you scoffing at the notion that putting stuff in boxes [discussion centered on Amazon as the major employer for the low-skilled, under-educated] could ever be meaningful. Those who hark back to the pit villages and steel towns that gave working men a sense of pride and identity will tell me that putting stuff in boxes isn’t ‘man’s work.’
But those people are wrong about where meaning comes from in the workplace. True, some jobs are meaningful because of the direct impact they have in the world – some people save lives, educate children or create works of art. But there’s no such direct meaning in bashing coal off a rock face. Mining is grueling, physical labour, but if that were enough to create meaning then the warehouse jobs could match it, exhausted limb for exhausted limb.
To borrow the title of Gregg Easterbrook’s book, this is The Progress Paradox: everyone is better off but no one is happier. Mackenzie grasped that societal breakdown isn’t about actual jobs; as she also pointed out, none of the “disenfranchised” workers really want to go back to jobs that cost them health and limbs, and the social respect that they claim they’ve lost never truly existed – name one time in history when a coal miner held equal status to a professor or an artist.
Continuing on the confusing, conflicting perceptions of what people want, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, went to Levittown, PA, and interviewed a wide range of locals in an effort to understand the skeleton of populism.
Greg [a local] put it this way: “Trump is telling them ‘it’s OK to be you.’ The rest of culture is telling them ‘it’s not OK to be you.’”
As Greg told me, whether the message is economic – “you have to go to college to succeed” – or cultural “I like to listen to AC/DC; what’s wrong with that?” – Levittowners and people like them have felt the brunt of elite disdain. In voting for Trump, these blue-collar workers were rebelling against the idea that America is no longer for people like them.
“Levittowners just want a good Christmas for their kids and to go to Jersey Shore for a couple of weeks. They want some acknowledgement that is OK,” Anthony [another local] said. Trump gives them that, and they are willing to overlook nearly everything in exchange.
In conclusion, Olsen wrote:
Rather than viewing global blue-collar discontent through an economic lens, we ought to be looking at populist-backing voters more as people like us, holding similarly cherished identities and hopes. And maybe if we did that, we might all be a bit better off.
It is important to note that according to Olsen, the majority of the local population held Bernie Sanders in equal esteem to Donald Trump. In a broad sense, Olsen’s comments and interviewees echo Davidson and Mackenzie: The good life, rather than simply money, is the fuel behind the average person. The dissonance is that “the good life” varies wildly by perception, not to mention goals.
Consider, for example, the statements uttered by Olsen’s source Greg regarding perceived attitudes on education, economics, and culture. Immediately, it is doubtful that anyone in wider society gives a hoot about any individual’s taste in rock music. In fact, it is more probable that Greg would find the noise issuing from average college dorms and frat houses to be quite recognizable. As a claim for difference and despite, popular culture is a non-starter.
On the success and career side, while the attitude Greg identified certainly exists, it is important to remember that it is the concoction of Americans by and for themselves. The “college-or-nothing” idea is a creation of the peer. The vocational and technical schools which benefited people like Greg didn’t spontaneously close in the decades after World War II; they closed because the market dried up (let’s ignore any correlation to the draft for now) as everyone, flush with post-War prosperity, raced into colleges and universities, regardless of quality or level of preparation. Even now, there are plenty of viable alternatives to obtain skills and commensurate financial independence for the less scholastically inclined. For someone to claim the college-success paradigm as a source of socio-cultural disenfranchisement suggests an ultimate conformity to the pressures of the peer through blind acceptance of a narrow definition of success. The number of fields where it is absolutely true that a person must attend college to succeed are quite few, require specific talents, and are highly specialized. It is not an organic thought for a person with average aspirations and expectations to compare himself to someone in one of these professional areas. Such a comparison only occurs through contact with and shaping of perception by a peer or group of peers.
But, one might argue, how is this possible if the Gregs of the world live their entire lives in circles of people with similar backgrounds and information levels? The answer is through images and the media of imagery. Particularly influential are television and social platforms, such as Instagram, largely because of their capacity to shape perception.
This photo is titled “Toffs and Toughs,” taken by photographer Jimmy Sime in London in 1937, and it shows two English public (private for Americans) schoolboys waiting for their parents to come pick them up. The photo has two stories, the actual story, and the one built around it by malcontents. The day after Sime took the photo, the leftist and class-warfare fomenting News Chronicle, which later merged into the modern tabloid Daily Mail, published it underneath the headline “Every Picture Tells A Story,” but then declined to clarify the photo at all, beyond misidentifying the two boys in morning dress as Etonians attending the Eton-Harrow cricket match. Almost simultaneously, American Life magazine picked up the photo and published it with further misidentifications and lack of clarification. The message was clear: the elites ignore or turn their back on the underprivileged and working-class.
The real story of the two “elite princelings” was very different. Both boys, students at Harrow, came from solidly middle-class backgrounds; the only trait that might be interpreted as “elite” about them was that their fathers were Harrovians. The younger boy Peter Wagner (on the far left) came from a family of immigrant tradesmen who had bootstrapped their way up the ladder. By 1937, the Wagners had settled into being a family of scientists and stockbrokers, comfortable, respectable, conventional. Peter served honorably during World War II and then took over his family’s business. The older boy Timmy Dyson (center) came from a professional military family, great of name but lacking means. Born into decidedly ordinary circumstances, he spent his childhood as an army brat. His parents only afforded Harrow because he was an only child. He died suddenly a few months after Sime took the infamous photograph.
Of the three “poor” boys, their realities were also much different from the one implied by the photo. None of them was a street urchin. Since they were playing hooky from school the day of the photo, one can extrapolate that they came from families with sufficient means to keep teenage boys enrolled in school despite living in Depression-era London. The two smaller boys, flanking the tall one, both became successful businessmen, while the taller boy became a civil servant. The three never forgave the media for casting them in the role of impoverished victims, arguing that they all had much richer lives than the photograph showed. Literally richer in the case of the two small boys, who post-War reportedly lived at a level of luxury unknown to “elite” Timmy Dyson.
“Toffs and Toughs” is an interesting study of imagery and the myths and perceptions that it can create and perpetuate. It is not an accident that Ruth Davidson, when discussing the modern young person’s alienation from capitalism, wrote, “all the while watching Rich Kids of Instagram on Channel 4 and footballers being bought and sold for more than the entire economy of a third world nation on Sky Sports News.” These are highly visual media which are also highly ersatz, shaped into the appearance of a cohesive whole through skillful editing.
Sports stars (and musicians, dancers, and artists) are terrible for comparison because becoming one requires herculean efforts and hours of practice. An extension of the 10,000-hour rule is: if someone isn’t willing to put in 10,000 hours to master a skill, he has no right to engage in envious nattering. Rich Kids of Instagram is a British reality TV show that spun off of an eponymous Tumblr thread wherein the purported Instagram photos of the superrich are collected. If one examines the pictures with a critical eye, it becomes apparent that the majority are staged – anyone standing on a pier can take a selfie with a docked yacht; it doesn’t mean that he owns the boat.
In the fourth episode, “From Cradle to Grave,” of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, 1980 original, at 32:27, Helen Bohen O’Brian, then Secretary of Welfare for Pennsylvania, astutely observed that people estimated their quality of life based on the people around them. What visual media has done is to bring people like the exhibitionists of Rich Kids of Instagram into people’s lives and present them as if they are in some manner the viewer’s peers. It is as divisive and dishonest as claiming that “Toffs and Toughs” told a “story.” If one considers that Guardian columnist Marina Hyde outed the TV show by revealing that a “rich kid” was not particularly rich, was a former tenant of Hyde’s family, and the place portrayed as the reality starlet’s house was their own property, into which the TV crew had unknowingly broken and entered, the deception is exactly on par with the 1937 one. It is all a pitiful lie, but one which, as Davidson spotted, the vast majority of people see and envy as truth.
In closing, there is one last example to consider. Marc Stuart Dreier, currently in prison for fraud, is an ex-lawyer whose scams were eclipsed only by those of Bernie Madoff. In an interview for the BBC documentary Unraveled, Dreier explained that he wasn’t motivated by greed or desire for the “rich life,” no, he wanted to be someone who socialized with golf and football stars. At the start, he was the embodiment of the American dream – son of an immigrant goes to Yale and Harvard Law – but then he discovered that law was not his métier. He neither enjoyed it, nor was he good at it. Unable to succeed through honest means, he turned to fraud. He wanted to be successful, not for its own sake but for the peer group he hoped to join. The documentary shows repeatedly snippets of Dreier in the guise of lawyer-philanthropist glad-handing footballers and playing with famous golfers, always with cameras there to catch every move. The goal was the visuals, not the reality.
In a battle of the mythic caricatures of Joseph A. Schumpeter, the victim is going to be liberty and responsibility. Today, Schumpeter’s words are truer than ever. Everyone has caricatured everyone else. And at the same time, everyone imagines himself on stage with his peers as the audience. There is no doubt that social media and technology have exacerbated the problem of imagery and the peer – fictional Homer Simpson and his candy mansion and Rich Kids of Instagram – but it is delusional to pretend that it didn’t exist before apps and smart phones. Blaming capitalism for the discontent caused by voyeurism and false expectations is both a logical non sequitur and a very serious peril for liberty. For the sake of preserving freedom, it is important to ask, to demand even, by what metric are the disaffected judging their lives. If it is by the peer, as Bohan O’Brian argued, then it is not a valid metric and should be treated as such.