Capitalism has never been a subject for economists alone. Philosophers, politicians, poets and social scientists have debated the cultural, moral, and political effects of capitalism for centuries, and their claims have been many and diverse. The Mind and the Market is a remarkable history of how the idea of capitalism has developed in Western thought.
Ranging across an ideological spectrum that includes Hobbes, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Hegel, Marx, and Matthew Arnold, as well as twentieth-century communist, fascist, and neoliberal intellectuals, historian Jerry Muller examines a fascinating thread of ideas about the ramifications of capitalism and its future implications. This is an engaging and accessible history of ideas that reverberate throughout everyday life.
Global markets destroy local cultures. Corporate greed breeds poverty wages. Slogans shouted at a demonstration against the World Trade Organization? Not exactly. As Catholic University history professor Muller argues, these were the concerns of European intellectuals as they witnessed the rise of modern capitalism. Even the market's great advocates, from Adam Smith to Joseph Schumpeter, feared its effects, Muller says. The market promoted individual liberties, self-interest and wealth accumulation. But the market also threatened to unleash avarice, wreak havoc on traditions, and destroy any sense of the common good. In clear if not inspired prose, Muller provides trenchant analyses of obscure and well-known students of capitalism. None of his subjects was an economist narrowly defined; all were "moral philosophers" concerned with the orderly and positive development of human society and the efficient production and distribution of goods. Left and right, they shared many ideas. Few Americans have heard of Justus Mser, but his defense of fixed inequalities and locally based production contributed to a powerful conservative critique of capitalism. On towering figures like Smith and Marx, Muller manages to provide fresh insights, and the chapter on Hegel, a notably difficult philosopher, is remarkably lucid. Some of the later chapters are less compelling, and the author's conclusions are rather too restrained. He is content to delineate the "vital tensions" that have accompanied the rise of capitalism and refrains from openly championing the ideas of one or another of his intellectuals. Still, this study illuminates the long lineage of engagement with the social consequences of capitalism. (Nov. 18) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 10, 2003
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Excerpt from The Mind and the Market by Jerry Z. Muller
Rights, Righteousness, and Virtue
"Those who accumulate possessions without end and without measure, those who are constantly adding new fields and new houses to their heritage; those who hoard huge quantities of wheat in order to sell at what to them is the opportune moment; those who lend at interest to poor and rich alike, think they are doing nothing against reason, against equity, and finally against divine law, because, as they imagine, they do no harm to anyone and indeed benefit those who would otherwise fall into great necessity.... [Yet] if no one acquired or possessed more than he needed for his maintenance and that of his family, there would be no destitute in the world at all. It is thus this urge to acquire more and more which brings so many poor people to penury. Can this immense greed for acquisition be innocent, or only slightly criminal?"
-Father Thomassin, traite de negoce et de l'usure, 1697
"Trade, without doubt, is in its nature a pernicious thing; it brings in that wealth which introduces luxury; it gives rise to fraud and avarice, and extinguishes virtue and simplicity of manners; it depraves a people, and makes way for that corruption which never fails to end in slavery, foreign or domestic. Lycurgus, in the most perfect model of government that was ever framed, did banish it from his commonwealth."
-Charles Davenant, "Essay upon the probable methods of making a people gainers in the balance of trade," 1699
To distinguish the novel from the perennial in modern debates about the moral worth of a society organized around the market, we must recall the characteristic attitudes of the great traditions of European thought toward commerce and the systematic pursuit of material gain through trade. For they made up the backdrop of concepts and images against which modern intellectuals would write. Even when these traditional arguments were no longer advanced explicitly, they lingered on as residues, influencing popular perceptions and more articulate debate.
There was no room-or little room-for commerce and the pursuit of gain in the portrait of the good society conveyed by the traditions of classical Greece and of Christianity, traditions that continued to influence intellectual life through the eighteenth century and beyond. Yet when discussion turned from outlining an ideal society to regulating real men and women through law, accommodating commerce and the pursuit of gain inevitably played a larger role. Roman civil law, with its origins in the empire and its emphasis on the protection of property, served as a reservoir of more favorable attitudes toward the safeguarding and accumulation of wealth. The hot and cold wars of religion that marked the early modern period were a turning point in the relations between these traditions. For as men judged the cost of imposing a unified vision of the common good too high, they increasingly took their bearings from the Roman civil tradition, which focused upon giving each his own, without subordinating all to some vision of the common good that they no longer shared.
The two quotations that open this chapter, written on the threshold of the eighteenth century, capture the hostility toward trade and moneymaking within two of the most venerable traditions of European thought. The statement by the Catholic cleric expresses the predominant view of commerce in the Christian tradition. The second, by an English political economist, reflects the tradition of civic republicanism. Both positions drew upon and modified classical Greek and Roman thought. Both traditions were suspicious of commerce, regarding it as inimical to the pursuit of virtue.