Is the United States capitalistic? Gerd, a German political scientist, drew this conclusion after his first visit to the U.S. But his own social ideals may have led him to see things that way. In my letter to him, I point to some evidence that America rejects capitalism, here represented by the thinking of two men, Adam Smith and Thomas Edison.
Of course! Once you had gawked through the canyons of Manhattan, even downtown Frankfurt would seem to you like molasses in March, because we Americans, when pursuing money or our other notions of happiness, do generally hustle more than you all-too-satisfied Europeans. Adam Smith, if he could observe market freedoms here, would have some chances to smile that he would miss on his home continent.
Capitalism as exemplified by Thomas Edison also seems to bolster your point and your vision. He may not have been the first to make a light bulb work, but no one disputes that his bulb was the first to enjoy commercial success. His spirit of invention and making money is still alive and kicking in the U.S. Modern versions of Edison’s innovations are stimulating technology and making some people fortunes, still contributing to this country’s wealth and – far more consequential – to its spirit. Yes, Gerd, this much of what you experienced rings true to this native.
Nevertheless, please do take off your rose-colored glasses. You don’t mind if I appoint myself your personal optometrist, do you?
Consider how America opposes Edison in pattern of mind and direction of drive. Wandering through the National Museum of American History in Washington, you thought of how “the development of labor-saving machines…is glorified there as part of America’s optimistic faith in technology as ‘better than nature.’” But what about the vehement rejections of industrial society and culture that America has recently spawned and nourished, namely environmentalism, the New Age movement, and the Sixties’ counterculture? (Not that these movements are only American!) Imagine how these now-powerful forces would react if Edison were now introducing his light. If running true to form, they would try to have it banned because artificial light must harm eyesight if not esthetic sensibility, because it would apocalyptically poison air and water as well as minds with unnaturalness. For some other critics, artificial light would dim inner illumination, the contamination being also spiritual, the sin being rather precisely to call anything manmade better than nature. For others, it would allow bosses to extend working hours, thus burdening workers, but it would also threaten jobs, especially at gasworks. Wall slogans would proclaim, “Light for people, not for profits!” Then some politicians, riding and goading these reactions, would call for banning electricity, present Edison’s patent as an outrageous monopoly, demand the government protect jobs at gasworks, and introduce bills to convert light into taxes. Sure, lots of Americans would get up on their hind legs even for light bulbs, but do not bet, Gerd, that they would prevail politically or culturally. If such technophobia sounds European to you, Gerd, then America is more European than you thought.
Not a few American technophobes trace technology back to evil roots in mathematical, empirical science. Some environmentalists scorn science as man’s tool for overstepping his rightful place within nature. Other opponents claim that since only dead, white, Eurocentric males have practiced science and formulated physical laws coercively binding on all minds, they have tried to foist their arbitrary norms onto the living, the nonwhites, the non-Eurocentrics, and women. Hatred and scorn of science flourishes particularly in humanities departments, where it functions as part of a general cultural critique of Western civilization, therefore especially America. As disparate as these movements are, on this much they could agree: not just Edison’s inventions, the practical results of science, are worthy of suspicion and hostility, but also their sources in scientific method and epistemology. For some, rationality itself looks in all the wrong places for life and mind.
As science has lost ground in American life, various mysticisms have gained, proving the arcane can be converted into a mass movement as well as a business. Many Americans, in dealing with their marriages, professions, and politics, put some stock (sometimes all of it) in astrology, or reincarnation, or extraterrestrial life, or alchemy, or shamanism, or the occult (various brands), or psychic healing, or extrasensory perception, or divination, or near-death experiences, or astral travel, or tarot cards. In my admittedly unscientific poll, only a minority of Americans with advanced academic degrees are willing to voice skepticism, much less open and argued disbelief about these “alternative routes to knowledge.” Did you browse much in bookstores when here, Gerd? If so, what do you think of the occult / esoteric sections? Those bookshelves have lengthened especially in California, which still often sends cultural waves washing east. Californians clogged the highways leaving the cities just before the last big earthquake predicted—by the sixteenth-century astrologer Nostradamus. After the space shuttle Challenger blew up in the mid-eighties, a would-be artist remarked to me that “somebody up there must not want us to explore space,” as if we humans should know our place and stay here. In Los Angeles you can get your car’s engine tuned by having New Age crystals waved over it. Paying customers therefore treat their machines not like man-made, therefore man-adjustable, mechanisms but as irascible spirits made tractable only by the proper rituals. Imagine Edison waving ritualistic crystals or chanting over thread as he sought the optimal filament for his light bulb! Beyond such particulars, a society embracing the New Age creates a moral and intellectual atmosphere inhospitable to Edisons, much less Newtons, whose enterprise presupposes a nature not occult but open to human understanding, thus intervention. Their vision contradicts the New Age movement’s world view, which portrays man, like events, as subject to forces external, capricious, and terrifying because intrinsically beyond his understanding, a fortiori his control, unless you have your own inner light tuned to the proper wavelength or know the right chants. Such a world view has no place or comfort for the self-made men you thought you found here, Gerd, but plenty for those who would spit at Prometheus in the hope of putting out his fire. A society espousing such a culture, even if delighting in hi-tech video games, can break the hearts of even its Edisons.
Now consider how America opposes Adam Smith in spirit. You praise American economic attitudes, in which you think Smith’s thinking predominates. But look at the counterevidence. Take work and public finance as samples of America’s economic culture.
You write of free labor markets in which “Everybody [in America] can offer anything on the market without a license or being obliged to furnish proof of competence.” Try telling that to gypsy cab drivers! In America, you may not simply start driving folks around, charging them what they’re willing to pay. By doing that, you could not merely break the legal taxi monopoly but also get your skull broken. The American taxi business may be particularly rough, but laws and mores – though not overt violence – similarly protect and / or enrich American doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, and others. Thus the tawdry turmoil of markets is kept out of certain sanctuaries ranging from the streets of Brooklyn to the groves of academe. The rationales offered for these sacred places cover a similarly wide range. Baseball owners and professors are protected because of their cultural significance; New York renters, because housing is essential; Angora-goat ranchers, because there are so few; minimum wage workers, presumably because there are so many. Anyone can deserve protection, maybe everyone. Moreover, many Americans gladly accept, embrace, use, and rationalize these justifications. Judge a society by the intellectual bank notes it passes. Wouldn’t these protectionist practices and mentality have dismayed Smith?
In your brief visit, you noticed how hard people can work here. All those aptly named convenience stores for insomniacs and robbers at three in the morning! America has enriched English by inventing the word workaholic. But American culture provides little support for all that zeal if you view work through its motivations, as Adam Smith does in Wealth of Nations:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self‑love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.
These are elements of a free-market labor morality: if you were that butcher, brewer, or baker, you would act as if altruistic, putting dinner on your customer’s table, but only to further your own interests or advantages; out of self-interest. But that, many Americans now call greed. After all, Smith mentions no so-called higher motives here, nor collective good, much less nobility of soul.
Most Americans, as I know them, would accept Smith’s passage, if at all, only as a description of what motivates people to work in fact. But fact is one thing, and morality is another and very different thing to them. Asked to reflect on Smith’s workers from a moral point of view, many Americans, using a strategy I believe now typical of our culture, would separate business from morality, calling work so motivated, amoral. Hypocrisy puts paid work outside morality, accounting for it as merely necessary, but not as good.
However, many Americans go beyond merely disengaging self-interested work from morality. They would reject the strategy of addressing themselves to the butcher’s self-love and would demand that they – and we – all at least aspire to speak to his humanity, or even morally better, to speak of others’ needs. “Where are the higher motives?” many would ask, and some would complain. So they would, in effect, condemn working out of such motivation as selfish, defining it not as amorality but immorality. How could Smith’s work ethic be built on that?
Now, how about public finance? In Smith’s society of “perfect liberty,” decisions would be made by the smallest practicable political units, right down to individual citizens. Thus of all levels of government, the local one should loom largest in daily life, and the central government would remain small. This proportion has implications for public services and financing them:
Were the streets of London to be lighted and paved at the expence of the treasury, is there any probability that they would be so well lighted and paved as they are at present, and even at so small an expence?
By which he means:
Public works are always better maintained by local revenue [and] management, than by the general revenue [and management] of the state.
Government services are best, he means, when tied closely to local interests, especially through money.
Of all polities, a New England town seems most likely not just to want to pursue Smith’s ideal but even capable of approaching it. After all, such a political community could tie government services as directly as you could imagine to citizens’ wallets. The voters themselves debate the town’s proposed budget at a public meeting, and then it’s thumbs up or down. Sometimes they say no, sometimes they thunder NO!, and their word settles it. If Smith’s ideal of financing public services were ever to be realized anywhere, it would be in the towns of New England, with over three centuries of authentic democratic tradition.
However, as I learned from serving as an elected member of the Board of Finance in the town of Chaplin, Connecticut, even New Englanders neglect or even spurn Smith’s ideal, and for reasons revealing much about American politics and culture now. A bridge in Chaplin requiring reconstruction can serve to illustrate my point. We could have paid for, designed, and rebuilt it ourselves according to our own taste and schedule. I hoped for a traditional, New England, one-lane, wooden bridge, but if higher levels of government paid for it, they would plan it, of course, and they wanted a two-lane, concrete mediocrity. With money dangled in front of us by the state of Connecticut and the federal government in Washington, people thought, “Eh, why not? It doesn’t cost us anything.” With this attitude, we had already made the bridge not our decision but … whose? Taste left to anonymity cannot be true taste at all. With no debate, Chaplin left all essentials up to Washington and Hartford.
The upshot? Smith was right about paying more for mediocre work. This project led to a strong bridge with a stronger aroma of socialist realism. The project’s economics also seems socialistic, even if not realistic, in that the price is several times what sanity would permit, well more than a million dollars for a span perhaps eighty feet long. Smith’s ideas also shed light on the causes: a project dispensed speciously free of charge by a distant, gray benevolence would turn out this way as compared with a bridge we could rightfully call ours, simply because neighbors care more than distant officials about neighborhood projects, especially when we are paying.
But the consequences resonate beyond the bridge, out into the town and the minds of individual citizens. The bridge seems free, but my town has paid a price. The good citizens of Chaplin have let state money seduce them into waiving their own decision-making process – their own polity, that is, and its very rationale. After all, if the state can finance and build the bridge for us, why not anything else – or everything else? Why have a town government at all? And in fact, as I found out, most of the town finances, thus its decisions, are not its own. Through mandates, the town serves largely as an administrative unit for the larger, higher levels of government. Since many of those mandates are unfunded, the state and the faceless feds effectively appropriate for themselves local taxes and well as our local government.
And what about the town’s ethos? Chapliners waived their conceptions of a proper relation between cost and benefits, and of what makes for good taste; they suspended their judgments of economic and esthetic values. A community cannot forgo such appraisals, any more than a person could, without damaging itself. In Chaplin, because we turned a blind eye to our own sense of good, I predict that on the next occasion we might exercise our judgment, it will have become less clear and less our own. When we give up our own assessments and interests, we weaken our sense of what our true interests and values are, and in time, of who we are as a town at all. Considered morally, when we misconceive our self-interest to lie in abandoning our own values to get state money, then self-interest has degenerated into egotism. After all, building our bridge at our expense is self-love in Smith’s sense of local control, but shifting costs onto others, onto taxpayers all over Connecticut, is to gain our advantage literally at others’ expense. Nevertheless, many Chapliners find it comfortable to have others pay, and as for our own values as a town: “Eh, so what?” Nevertheless, that is what Chaplin’s majority “wants.” What sort of ethos is that? Self-governance has nearly died in practice and spirit even in New England.
Of course the state pays for and controls much more than the one bridge in our town, and the other towns in Connecticut are also lunging at state grants. In fact, it counts as normal all over this country for local governments to shift as much financing as possible to higher levels of government and to accept as much control as necessary, even if a lot is necessary, as it is. Clearly, Gerd, such practices, such a mentality, and such a notion of self-interest as grabbing for government handouts contradict Smith’s conceptions of self-love, good government, and a good society.
So, Gerd, when I look at American mentality, its culture as prevailing beliefs, I see some potent reasons to conclude that the U.S. is not capitalistic, even anti-capitalistic. You may now feel disappointed that my country does not live up to your ideals as much as you have thought, and if so, I regret causing you such discomfort, but wouldn’t you appreciate a gentle reminder from a friend that your eyeglass prescription needs updating?
Your friend indeed,
PS: You were wrong about American beer, too. Not all of it is trashy, and some of it will delight even a choosy German beer drinker. You just have to know the markets. S
 For insight into Edison’s fertile and agile imagination, see Niel Baldwin’s article on Edison’s notebooks in Scientific American, Jan. 1996.
 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared in 1962 and has been re-issued often since.
 See Norman Levitt and Paul R. Gross, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994)
 Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker calls the mathematical sciences the “hard core of modern Europe,” “the most durable product of this culture, its continuously growing skeleton of steel.” Garten des Menschlichen, 93.
 You might want to look at a book called The Overworked Americans.
 The Wealth of Nations, bk. 1, ch. 2.
 Bk. 5, ch. 1, pt. 3, art. 1.
 Bk. 5, ch. 1, pt. 3, art. 1.
 Expressed in the remarkable Massachusetts “Body of Liberties” (1641)