Two Cheers for Capitalism

By Wilson, James Q.; Novak, Michael et al. | The Public Interest, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Two Cheers for Capitalism

Wilson, James Q., Novak, Michael, Kernan, Alvin, The Public Interest

AS I read David Bosworth's splendid language, his extraordinarily balanced phrases and keen satirical wit, his lively use of striking examples coupled with enduring issues, I found that I started to ask myself, Do I know anybody like the people he describes? Do I know people who deny death, flatter the "inner child," whose lives "are now stocked with the jingles of commerce," and whose humane responsibilities are "increasingly purchased rather than performed"? Surely I should, since I was raised in California and now live--God forbid--in Malibu.

But I don't. They are not my children, nor their friends, nor my friends, nor my sister, nor any of our cousins. Some of these people are religious, some are not, but all behave like adults. They are not caught up in the merciless, soul-shattering experience of being both a "Producing Self" and a "Consuming Self." They work hard, but they come home to a quiet family. They buy what they need and indulge in some of the newer technological innovations, but they are not obsessed by a desire to own. They smile at the phrase, sometimes seen on bumper stickers, that he who dies with the most toys wins, but they don't believe it. They think--as I do--that a person wins who dies having left behind decent children, a reputation for honesty, and some accomplishment that may benefit others.

Perhaps I live in a unique and vanishing world. I am getting along in years; my mind was shaped by the Second World War; I am not much attracted to fashion, But then neither are my relatives or friends, and many of them are much younger than I.

I SUSPECT that what's wrong is Bosworth's tendency to see glimpses of an assumed world and then think that he has seen the whole of it, and thus that the world is entirely as he has imagined it to be. Much of what Bosworth describes ists--parents obsessed with "quality time" and relentlessly catering to their children's every illusory "need," government officials who are the captives of "special interests," schoolrooms that are "duchies of the postindustrial economy," young people fascinated by the language of rap artists who are faking their rebelliousness because that seems to sell. But to make an argument about an entire culture, and about its economic roots and moral tendencies, requires the one thing that is left out of Bosworth's rhetorical flourishes: facts.

I had long thought that the purpose of this magazine was to subject high-flown rhetoric to critical analysis by asking whether the claims were generally true, whether the effects that are lamented were produced by the causes suggested, and what practical alternatives existed that might reduce the harms without creating worse ones of their own. Apparently my assumption has outlived reality.

Let me take one example. With Bosworth, I am deeply worried about the effects on children of having two working parents. I prefer children to be raised by a parent--of necessity, almost always the mother--who stays home. I fear that children raised by professional childrearers will suffer. But are my fears--and Bosworth's--correct? I have looked hard at the studies that have been done about this and can find hardly any that show my worries to be well-founded. Maybe the studies were badly done (though there are many, by many different authors). Maybe they did not ask the right questions. Maybe they were inattentive to the subtle, but important, aspects of human personality. Or maybe I am wrong, and so is Bosworth. Until I know the facts, I will be cautious in my comments.

Caution is not a word that can be applied to Bosworth. He is in high dudgeon, and like all true believers he knows what is true without bothering to ask if it is true. At one point he laments the absence of the "true humility [that] is the source of the most profound sort of pragmatism," a phrase that would have more power if anywhere in his essay he displayed even a trace of humility.

But let us suppose that the defective world in which he believes the middle class now lives is in fact as bad as he thinks it is. …

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