1. The indispensability of unilateral coercion Billy Christmas, 200-Proof Liberals
  2. The grim logic of urban politics and the genius of federalism John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  3. The emerging war on thrift Scott Sumner, EconLog
  4. Good piece on Israel’s ongoing “black flag” protests Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists

Contempt for capitalism

Scarcity is merely contempt for that which is easily obtained.

                                                                                               ~ Seneca (attributed)[1]

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![2]) 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 them.

[1] 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).

[2] Interesting which of the two movements gained enough political clout to have its agenda inscribed in the Constitution.