Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery

Princeton University Press
Free sample

Democracy is overrated. Capitalism, on the other hand, doesn't get enough credit. In this provocative and engaging book, John Mueller argues that these mismatches between image and reality create significant political and economic problems--inspiring instability, inefficiency, and widespread cynicism. We would be far better off, he writes, if we recognized that neither system is ideal or disastrous and accepted instead the humdrum truth that both are "pretty good." And, to Mueller, that means good enough. He declares that what is true of Garrison Keillor's fictional store "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery" is also true of democracy and capitalism: if you can't get what you want there, "you can probably get along without it."

Mueller begins by noting that capitalism is commonly thought to celebrate greed and to require discourtesy, deceit, and callousness. However, with examples that range from car dealerships and corporate boardrooms to the shop of an eighteenth-century silk merchant, Mueller shows that capitalism in fact tends to reward behavior that is honest, fair, civil, and compassionate. He argues that this gap between image and reality hampers economic development by encouraging people to behave dishonestly, unfairly, and discourteously to try to get ahead and to neglect the virtuous behavior that is an important source of efficiency and gain.


The problem with democracy's image, by contrast, is that our expectations are too high. We are too often led by theorists, reformers, and romantics to believe that democracy should consist of egalitarianism and avid civic participation. In fact, democracy will always be chaotic, unequal, and marked by apathy. It offers reasonable freedom and security, but not political paradise. To idealize democracy, Mueller writes, is to undermine it, since the inevitable contrast with reality creates public cynicism and can hamper democracy's growth and development.


Mueller presents these arguments with sophistication, wit, and erudition. He combines mastery of current political and economic literature with references to figures ranging from Plato to P. T. Barnum, from Immanuel Kant to Ronald Reagan, from Shakespeare to Frank Capra. Broad in scope and rich in detail, the book will provoke debate among economists, political scientists, and anyone interested in the problems (or non-problems) of modern democracy and capitalism.

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About the author

John Mueller is Professor of Political Science at the University of Rochester. His previous books include War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War, and Quiet Cataclysm: Reflections on the Recent Transformation of World Politics. He is a regular contributor to numerous academic journals and has written editorial page columns in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times. Outside the field of political science, Mueller has written the prize-winning Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films (Knopf) and cowritten A Foggy Day, a musical presented at the Shaw Festival in Ontario.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Jul 30, 2001
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Pages
352
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ISBN
9781400823123
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Language
English
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Genres
Philosophy / Political
Political Science / Political Ideologies / Democracy
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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Ronald Reagan’s most-quoted living author—George Gilder—is back with an all-new paradigm-shifting theory of capitalism that will upturn conventional wisdom, just when our economy desperately needs a new direction.

America’s struggling economy needs a better philosophy than the college student's lament: "I can't be out of money, I still have checks in my checkbook!" We’ve tried a government spending spree, and we’ve learned it doesn’t work. Now is the time to rededicate our country to the pursuit of free market capitalism, before we’re buried under a mound of debt and unfunded entitlements. But how do we navigate between government spending that's too big to sustain and financial institutions that are "too big to fail?" In Knowledge and Power, George Gilder proposes a bold new theory on how capitalism produces wealth and how our economy can regain its vitality and its growth.

Gilder breaks away from the supply-side model of economics to present a new economic paradigm: the epic conflict between the knowledge of entrepreneurs on one side, and the blunt power of government on the other. The knowledge of entrepreneurs, and their freedom to share and use that knowledge, are the sparks that light up the economy and set its gears in motion. The power of government to regulate, stifle, manipulate, subsidize or suppress knowledge and ideas is the inertia that slows those gears down, or keeps them from turning at all.

One of the twentieth century’s defining economic minds has returned with a new philosophy to carry us into the twenty-first. Knowledge and Power is a must-read for fiscal conservatives, business owners, CEOs, investors, and anyone interested in propelling America’s economy to future success.
"War... is merely an idea, an institution, like dueling or slavery, that has been grafted onto human existence. It is not a trick of fate, a thunderbolt from hell, a natural calamity, or a desperate plot contrivance dreamed up by some sadistic puppeteer on high. And it seems to me that the institution is in pronounced decline, abandoned as attitudes toward it have changed, roughly following the pattern by which the ancient and formidable institution of slavery became discredited and then mostly obsolete."—from the Introduction

War is one of the great themes of human history and now, John Mueller believes, it is clearly declining. Developed nations have generally abandoned it as a way for conducting their relations with other countries, and most current warfare (though not all) is opportunistic predation waged by packs—often remarkably small ones—of criminals and bullies. Thus, argues Mueller, war has been substantially reduced to its remnants—or dregs—and thugs are the residual combatants.

Mueller is sensitive to the policy implications of this view. When developed states commit disciplined troops to peacekeeping, the result is usually a rapid cessation of murderous disorder. The Remnants of War thus reinvigorates our sense of the moral responsibility bound up in peacekeeping. In Mueller's view, capable domestic policing and military forces can also be effective in reestablishing civic order, and the building of competent governments is key to eliminating most of what remains of warfare.

Why have there been no terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11? It is ridiculously easy for a single person with a bomb-filled backpack, or a single explosives-laden automobile, to launch an attack. So why hasn't it happened? The answer is surely not the Department of Homeland Security, which cannot stop terrorists from entering the country, legally or otherwise. It is surely not the Iraq war, which has stoked the hatred of Muslim extremists around the world and wasted many thousands of lives. Terrorist attacks have been regular events for many years -- usually killing handfuls of people, occasionally more than that.

Is it possible that there is a simple explanation for the peaceful American homefront? Is it possible that there are no al-Qaeda terrorists here? Is it possible that the war on terror has been a radical overreaction to a rare event? Consider: 80,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants have been subjected to fingerprinting and registration, and more than 5,000 foreign nationals have been imprisoned -- yet there has not been a single conviction for a terrorist crime in America. A handful of plots -- some deadly, some intercepted -- have plagued Europe and elsewhere, and even so, the death toll has been modest.

We have gone to war in two countries and killed tens of thousands of people. We have launched a massive domestic wiretapping program and created vast databases of information once considered private. Politicians and pundits have berated us about national security and patriotic duty, while encroaching our freedoms and sending thousands of young men off to die.

It is time to consider the hypothesis that dare not speak its name: we have wildly overreacted. Terrorism has been used by murderous groups for many decades, yet even including 9/11, the odds of an American being killed by international terrorism are microscopic. In general, international terrorism doesn't do much damage when considered in almost any reasonable context.

The capacity of al-Qaeda or of any similar group to do damage in the United States pales in comparison to the capacity other dedicated enemies, particularly international Communism, have possessed in the past. Lashing out at the terrorist threat is frequently an exercise in self-flagellation because it is usually more expensive than the terrorist attack itself and because it gives the terrorists exactly what they are looking for. Much, probably most, of the money and effort expended on counterterrorism since 2001 (and before, for that matter) has been wasted.

The terrorism industry and its allies in the White House and Congress have preyed on our fears and caused enormous damage. It is time to rethink the entire enterprise and spend much smaller amounts on only those things that do matter: intelligence, law enforcement, and disruption of radical groups overseas. Above all, it is time to stop playing into the terrorists' hands, by fear-mongering and helping spread terror itself.
Following 9/11, Americans were swept up in a near hysteria-level fear of terrorists, especially of Islamic extremists working domestically. The government and media reports stoked fears that people living in the US have the desire and means to wreak extreme havoc and destruction. Early reports estimated slightly more than 300 al Qaeda operatives living in the United States. It wasn't long before this number became 2,000 or 5,000 domestic terrorists. As these estimates snowballed, so did spending on federal counterterrorism organizations and measures, spending which now totals over a trillion dollars. The federal government launched more covert operations in the name of fighting terrorist adversaries than they did in the entirety of the forty-five year Cold War. For each apprehension of a credible terrorist suspect, the US government created or re-organized two counterterrorism organizations. The scale of these efforts has been enormous, yet somehow they have not been proven to make Americans feels safe from what they perceive to be a massive terrorist threat. But how well-founded is this fear? Is the threat of terrorism in the United States as vast as it seems and are counterterrorism efforts effective and appropriately-scaled? It has not, statistically speaking, been efficient or successful. Only one alarm in 10,000 has proven to be a legitimate threat-the rest are what the authors refer to as "ghosts." These ghosts are enormous drains on resources and contribute to a countrywide paranoia that has resulted in widespread support and minimal critical questioning of massive expenditures and infringements on civil liberties, including invasions of privacy and questionably legal imprisonments. In Chasing Ghosts, John Mueller and Mark Stewart argue that the "ghost chase" occupying American fears, law enforcement, and federal spending persists because the public believes that there exists in the US a dire and significant threat of terrorism. The authors seek to analyze to what degree this is a true and to what degree the threat posed by terrorists in the US defends the extraordinary costs currently put towards their investigation. The chance that an American will be killed by a terrorist domestically in any given year is about one in four million (under present conditions). Yet despite this statistically low risk and the extraordinary amount of resources put towards combatting threats, Americans do not profess to feel any safer from terrorists. Until the true threat of domestic terrorism is analyzed and understood, the country cannot begin to confront whether our pursuit of ghosts is worth the cost.
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