Thinking about their lives, their livelihoods, and their identities, Americans have long placed great stock in morally charged economic mythologies. The “land of opportunity,” the “American Dream,” the “pursuit of happiness”—all have survived crushing depressions, civil strife, and global wars to give meaning and value to Americans’ daily strivings. While the growing diversity of the American social landscape has made Norman Rockwell–like depictions of faith and family seem almost obsolete, the equally venerable imagery of the disciplined work ethic has demonstrated far more staying power, with only the occupations and demographics of workers requiring updating. The short-lived coworking space startup WeWork drew attention in 2018 for the pro-work messages inscribed on the produce floating in its watercoolers. “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done,” was just one of the exhortations etched into floating cucumber slices, intended to inspire indefatigable “creatives” beavering away at their MacBooks.
Such mythic notions draw on a different dimension of economics from the one presented in most textbooks. Yet this cultural dimension may ultimately be as vital to the well-being of society as all of the projections and prescriptions derived from highly mathematized models of econometric theory. As Max Weber and other social theorists have shown, the fundamental human need to confer meaning on events, particularly those bearing on livelihoods, makes people depend on mythic frameworks and “webs of meaning” not only to ennoble their daily efforts but to ward off the threat of nihilistic randomness or chaotic disorder. These frameworks serve to make sense of economic success, failure, prosperity, and devastation, not just for individuals but for groups as a whole.
In America, these frameworks have undergone gradual but significant changes. Early colonial settlers viewed their trade and commerce as contributing to the commonwealth and a wider covenantal order, subject to religious and civil authorities alike. Likewise, southern planters and others justified their exploitation of enslaved laborers through frameworks of a racialized hierarchical order and Christian paternalism. It was only toward the middle of the nineteenth century, as the American market economy was being transformed by advances in transportation and technology, that a new and more characteristically modern economic mythology took form. This one emphasized individual effort and reward as the basis of a new covenant, this one with sovereign market forces rather than the sacredly ordained hierarchical order. Adherents to this covenant believed they inhabited an economic world that was controllable, predictable, and largely fair. Provided that individuals were committed to working hard and playing by the rules, they were assured at least a fighting chance to survive the “prevailing gales of creative destruction.”11xJoseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York, NY: Routledge, 1942), 82.
The 1843 McGuffey Reader confidently pronounced to millions of American schoolchildren that the “road to wealth” was “open to all, and all who will, may enter upon it with the almost certain prospect of success.”22xWilliam Holmes McGuffey, McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Reader (Cincinnati, OH: Winthrop B. Smith, 1843), 93. This became the “American assumption,” as W.E.B. Du Bois labeled it, which posited that wealth was mainly a result of a person’s effort and that “any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist.”33xW.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 182–83. First published 1935. While the relative inequality of American society always left such claims open to doubt and debate, such thinking had at least an aspirational role in the American experience throughout the twentieth century. In his 1992 campaign speeches Bill Clinton would continue to speak of America’s promise, that “if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given abilities will take you.”44xGwen Ifill, “The 1992 Campaign: Clinton’s Standard Campaign Speech: A Call for Responsibility,” New York Times, April 26, 1992, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/26/us/the-1992-campaign-clinton-s-standard-campaign-speech-a-call-for-responsibility.html.
But problems can result from tying individual and national identities to economic mythologies, particularly in our age of global capitalism, when extensive economic dislocations and disruptions have created uncertainty and precarity among wide swaths of the population. Since the passing of the postwar era’s “Golden Age of Capitalism” (generally pegged as the time between 1945 and 1973, or what the French have dubbed les trentes glorieuses), many Americans have begun to doubt that the economic system is keeping up its side of the bargain. Stagnant wages since the 1970s alongside instability brought on by oil supply shocks and stagflation were followed by the expanded influence of a profit-hungry financial sector and globalized trade that yielded even greater volatility of wages and employment. The disruptive force of the 2008 recession—and the relatively minimal consequences suffered by those leading the responsible institutions—unleashed new fires of anti-elite populism.
Our present moment finds not only workers but also politicians and business leaders seeking to renew the reigning economic mythologies in a manner that can either make sense of the post-2008 mode of capitalism or successfully counter its costly deviations from its earlier mode. Yet this task now confronts the social realities that were papered over in the simpler times of the McGuffey Reader. The growing recognition of institutionalized inequality and the disproportional power of financial elites seem to counter the doctrine that the road to prosperity is open to all Americans.
Writing about cultural systems and meaning, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggested that three sorts of events can send a society’s cultural frameworks into a tailspin: bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox.55xClifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1973), 100. It is at these points that the interpretability of life begins to break down, that individuals lose confidence that they can effectively orient themselves. Societies are then pushed to the limits of understanding and endurance, as “chaos” threatens to “break in” upon them.
The last two decades provide ample evidence that conventional American mythologies have now reached such a breaking point. The rhetoric of populist politicians and surveys of the populace as a whole reveal a common sentiment: that the system is “rigged.” This sentiment has disproportionately taken hold among lower-income workers across both political parties, populations struggling to keep their heads above water as they try to cope with rising health-care costs and the disappearance of benefit-bearing jobs.66xJames Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman, The Vanishing Center of American Democracy, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, 2016, https://iasculture.org/research/publications/vanishing-center. This survey, issued in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, revealed that 73 percent of respondents completely agreed or mostly agreed with the statement “Our economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthiest Americans.” The rate of agreement was higher among black respondents (86 percent) than whites (71 percent). Many workers in publicly traded corporations also see the stagnation of their own wages in sharp contrast with the relative stability and prosperity enjoyed by their employers.
But extending well beyond these populations is a more general skepticism toward institutions tasked with leading the economic and financial sectors and overseeing their well-ordered functioning. The last ten years have seen a growing suspicion that the “invisible hand” of global capitalism does not appear to be disbursing the spoils of free trade in a fair manner. Where the old economic mythologies preached submission to “the system” because of its essential fairness, a new politics of resentment now draws attention to those not-so-invisible hands that seem to have weighted the scales to favor the wealthy few. This has raised the possibility that perhaps the American Dream is not actually dying a peaceful death, the victim of job automation and declining American economic hegemony, but is instead being killed off and replaced with a walled garden of success that denies access to all but a select few.
The Misidentified Frailties of Economic Mythologies
Not surprisingly, America’s favored economic mythologies fare well in times of shared prosperity. Growing affluence shared by workers and employers largely insulates the system from criticism. So for those Americans who were not excluded by race or gender from a broad range of economic opportunity, the American mythology proved strongest through periods of steady growth in aggregate productivity in the economy as a whole: from 1800 to the 1880s, with relatively short-lived downturns; a brief resurgence during the 1920s; the “glorious thirty” from the end of World War II through the early 1970s. During the 1920s, most tellingly, the American Dream myth was able to endure despite the intensifying concentration of wealth and power in large industries and corporations that had occurred in the preceding decades. The myth persisted largely because the social and economic welfare of the country—of blue-collar workers as well as white-collar ones—became “inseparably connected with the welfare of its industries,” in the words of a 1921 pamphlet.77xOtto H. Kahn, Pressing Problems and Some Suggestions: An Address Delivered before the Traffic Club of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA: Traffic Club of Pittsburgh, 1921), 12. A deep depression put the myth to a test, but stability emerged again in the postwar era. Harvard economist and Democratic Party adviser John Kenneth Galbraith marveled at the complete absence of concerns about economic inequality in the 1950s.88xJohn Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1958).
It is in times of economic unrest or stagnation that the mythologies become subject to scrutiny and questioning. Fissures begin to appear along the edges, among populations who find their diminishing slice of the pie impossible to ignore. More evident as well are those voices that, even in prosperous times, confront obstacles to mobility and opportunity. Is the pathway to success truly open to all, or has it become accessible only to the select few?
The present era of American capitalism has brought renewed attention to these questions. In the wake of the structural shifts of the 1970s, the rapid growth of global trade, changes in immigration levels, and the loss of manufacturing jobs all exposed the labor market to increasing volatility. The divergence between workers’ real wages and productivity and profit in the 1970s only widened during the next five decades. The 1980s saw the first ripples of corporate downsizing and layoffs, and the offshoring of production sent an unprecedented shock wave through the labor market as “American” industries now seemed to exist entirely at the whims of global forces. Even before the current wave of antiestablishment populism, a series of aptly named books like The American Nightmare: Why Inequality Persists (1987), Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream (1993), and Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation (1996) was already chronicling cases of systemic obstruction of economic mobility.
But these macrotrends became more pronounced in the wake of the 2008 recession. The slowly recovering labor market drove many middle-class workers toward lower-paying jobs lacking benefits, and many rural regions saw their recession-level unemployment rates persist even amid recovery at the national level. These “left behind” regions and the growing opposition of their inhabitants to immigration and global trade came into the national spotlight in the 2010s.
The resulting uncertainties would become even more glaring in that decade, dramatically punctuated by two unexpected but related events in 2016: the successful Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump. Postmortem analysis focused largely on a growing “politics of resentment” targeting the leaders and ideas that undergirded the pro-trade, pro-globalization consensus of the 1990s. At least on questions related to economics and political attitudes, a dramatic shift seems to have taken place. A 2016 Economist/YouGov poll administered soon after the election revealed that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to agree with the statement “The free market has been sorting the economy and America’s been losing” (57 percent compared to 33 percent).99xThe Economist/YouGov Poll, December 3–5, 2016, https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/lxxqhdzidf/econTabReport.pdf. Perhaps even more surprising was the relative success of the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of self-identified socialist Bernie Sanders, suggesting that much of the American electorate had abandoned Cold War ideological Manichaeism and was ready to revisit questions of basic economic structures. A 2019 poll showed that 51 percent of millennials (people twenty-five to thirty-four years old) reported a “positive reaction” to the word socialism, a response only narrowly bested by the positive reaction to capitalism (58 percent). Among members of Generation Z (ages eighteen to twenty-four), the two terms polled roughly evenly.1010xFelix Salmon, “Gen Z Prefers ‘Socialism’ to ‘Capitalism,’” Axios, January 27, 2019, https://www.axios.com/socialism-capitalism-poll-generation-z-preference-1ffb8800-0ce5-4368-8a6f-de3b82662347.html.
Some elites quickly attempted to counter economic resentment by doubling down on the venerable mythologies. In that vein, American Enterprise Institute economist Michael R. Strain has denounced the various currents of “economic pessimism,” insisting that workers have no real grounds for grievances. His bluntly titled 2020 book The American Dream Is Not Dead (But Populism Could Kill It) puts a carefully constructed positive spin on economic data before issuing a dire warning against those daring to criticize the system. According to Strain, populist leaders on the left and right are “retreating from the importance of personal responsibility, embracing a narrative of victimhood, and treating those with whom they disagree as enemies to be defeated.” They are guilty of advancing a vision “intoxicated with nostalgia or with the concept of an unattainable utopian future.” While acknowledging the allure of such “narratives of pessimism,” Strain stands firm on what he believes is the only way forward: “The American people should be optimistic because of the many reasons for optimism. That optimism should be a foundation for a renewal of energy and personal responsibility.... The American Dream is alive, but it requires hard work and asks all Americans for their contributions.”1111xMichael R. Strain, The American Dream Is Not Dead (But Populism Could Kill It) (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2020), 104–06.
What Strain and others like him fail to see in the Americans they criticize is the resilience of their faith in the Dream. Indeed, judged by, among other things, the popular culture they favor, working-class and middle-class Americans in less prosperous parts of country still embrace and celebrate the virtues of an uncompromising work ethic, whether through their devotion to TV shows that portray the conventional rags-to-riches story in meritocratic talent competitions or those that celebrate the enduring character of manual labor occupations like “dirty jobs” or home improvement work.1212xJosh Katz, “‘Duck Dynasty’ vs. ‘Modern Family’: 50 Maps of the U.S. Cultural Divide,” New York Times, December 27, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/26/upshot/duck-dynasty-vs-modern-family-television-maps.html. Religious preferences similarly reflect and buttress these Americans’ fundamental faith in personal responsibility. The Prosperity Gospel movement—a meritocratically supercharged form of Protestant Christianity promising God’s financial blessings to the faithful—draws most of its followers from the working-class and otherwise marginalized populations. And like that movement, the world of multilevel marketing and small-business coaching attracts service economy workers and other dreamers seeking an escape from economic precarity. Even among populist and antiestablishment populations, pro-work themes have, if anything, become more central to their identities. The rural Wisconsin residents interviewed by political scientist Katherine Cramer for her book The Politics of Resentment point to what they see as a clear divide between “people with my work ethic versus people without it.” Commonly dismissed by these respondents are public sector employees, university professors, and any people who “shower before work, not afterwards.”1313xKatherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 131.
Clearly wrong is the assumption that zealous commitments to personal responsibility cannot coexist with very critical evaluations of the system’s relative fairness. Despite 70 percent of American respondents believing that the economic system is rigged to favor powerful interests, a solid 60 percent continue to agree with the statement that “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard.”1414x“Political Typology Reveals Deep Fissures on the Right and Left,” Pew Research Center, October 24, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2017/10/24/political-typology-reveals-deep-fissures-on-the-right-and-left/.
Instead of abandoning belief in the work ethic, then, many Americans direct their resentment toward those groups that seem to have openly deviated from it without consequence. This is precisely the argument of Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves, who charges that college-educated elites on both sides of the aisle have long been engaged in “hoarding” the American Dream, passing on their acquired wealth and privilege to their children by giving them high-priced private educations and by living exclusively in more affluent neighborhoods.1515xRichard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2017). This has led to a decrease in economic mobility, as assortative mating and class segregation in nearly every institution effectively locked out all but the 20 percent who find themselves born into this position. These impediments to mobility escape the notice of Strain, who denies the existence of any disproportionately victimized or rewarded parties in the present system. Instead, all such assertions are dismissed as evidence of the long reach of “victimhood” culture that threatens to erode personal responsibility. Yet solid historical evidence suggests that calling foul on those who subvert the American Dream represents not a betrayal but a reaffirmed commitment to the “land of opportunity” and an intolerance of those who seem to be subverting it.
Returning to the First Populists
Indeed, in many respects, the present moment seems to recapitulate certain features of the late-nineteenth-century Populist movement. Then, too, dedication to hard work and its value as a source of personal dignity coexisted with concerns that the system was becoming “rigged.” The rise of industrialism and the consolidation of smaller economic entities into larger ones placed new stresses on once largely independent American workers, roughly two thirds of whom had been had been absorbed into wage labor positions by the end of the nineteenth century. As historian Daniel Rodgers observed of these workers, “No amount of sheer hard work would open the way to self-employment or wealth.”1616xDaniel T. Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1865–1920 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973), 28. Yet the historical record reveals no rejection of the value of hard work among those objecting to the conditions of wage labor. Rather, criticism and protests were directed against “the system,” which workers believed was abandoning the principles of competition and fair access to opportunity. An 1891 editorial in a Nebraska Populist publication for farmers lambasted conditions that subjected workers to fourteen to sixteen hours of work a day while reducing their relationship to their employer to that of “servant to master, of a machine to its director.” The “competitive system” had become not the pathway to success and wealth but the source of alienation, with the survival of the fittest now serving as a “satanic creed.” Populist writers also blamed the industrial system for breaking its own rules by permitting an “artificial individual”—the publicly traded corporation—to bend the law and the conditions of competition to its own interests.1717xSelections from Jay Burrows, “The Alienated Individual,” Farmers’ Alliance, May 7, 1891, and “On Economic Trends” (editorial, no byline), Farmers’ Alliance, February 28, 1891. Both reprinted in Norman Pollock, ed., The Populist Mind (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 3–4, 19.
Calling out the transgressors did not signify a loss of faith in a fair economy, as Populists continued to praise the merits of the “productive classes” of “farmers, laborers, merchants, and all other people who produce wealth,” in the words of an 1896 Populist manifesto. It was the monopolists and financiers of the time who no longer complied with the dictates of fair and competitive capitalism. The Populists sought government remedies precisely to restore the competition and openness assured by the economic myths in which they continued to believe.1818xQuoted in Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1955), 64.
The Populist resistance to wage labor and corporate power had little staying power in the twentieth century. As the historian Christopher Lasch explained it, agrarian populism represented the last stand of “producerism” in American history, an ideology that equally valorized small proprietors, shopkeepers, and the yeoman farmer.1919xChristopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1991). Increased wages and rising standards of living offered by the Fordist production regimes led to general acceptance of the expanded power of corporations. But as it turned out, the Populist response to transgressions against the American economic mythology in the Gilded Age adumbrated some of the ways American working people since the early 1970s have kept their faith in the American Dream even while economic transformations have made it hard to attain.
Sadly, one of the signal defeats of the Populist movement—its failure to adequately address the continued exclusion of most African Americans from the full range of opportunities—also foreshadowed another problem in the present struggles against a “rigged” system. To be sure, the Populists at times made surprising inroads across racial lines, forming alliances with organizations of black farmers. Their gatherings occasionally brought together both black and white southerners to rally support for Populist candidates and organize strikes for higher farm wages. But as the historian Lawrence Goodwyn observed, the southern blacks joining these associations quickly saw that the protests against vicious corporate monopoly were not sufficient to challenge the underlying racial caste system. Economic improvement by way of higher commodity prices and flexible currency certainly offered some relief from their conditions, but it was not enough to ensure the needed level of protection from prejudice and the threat of violence. There was “no purely ‘economic’ way out,” as Goodwyn wrote.2020xLawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1976), 281.
Historians and popular writers have moved the experiences of black Americans to the center of historical understandings of economic history, bringing attention not only to the enduring effects of slavery but also to the systematic denials of access to employment, capital, and land, from the end of the Civil War through the Jim Crow era and up to the present day. These revelations seem to have had a measurable impact on public views. A 2016 ABC/Washington Post survey revealed a significant increase in agreement with the statement “Racism is a ‘big problem’ in our society today” in comparison to 2009: Fifty-two percent of white respondents and 81 percent of black respondents agreed in 2016, compared to only 22 percent of whites and 44 percent of blacks in 2009. This trend even crosses partisan lines. The percentage of those who identified as or leaned Republican who agreed that racism was a big problem in 2016 was higher than the percentage of Democrats or those who leaned Democratic who agreed only seven years earlier (37 percent of Republicans in 2016 compared to 32 percent of Democrats in 2009).2121x“Republicans Divided in Views of Trump’s Conduct; Democrats Are Broadly Critical,” Pew Research Center, August 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2017/08/29/republicans-divided-in-views-of-trumps-conduct-democrats-are-broadly-critical/. These polls predate the renewed attention granted to racialized police violence and institutionalized racism evident in the recent killings of George Floyd and other black Americans as well as in the higher COVID-19 fatality rates among minority populations.
But this growing consciousness has not overcome the same tension that limited the earlier Populist movement. For the populism taking hold in the economically “left behind” regions, this tension has become another wedge issue along with other divisive cultural issues related to demographic change, nativism, and animosity toward immigrant groups. Donald Trump and other politicians adopting the language of populism have harnessed such cultural issues to harden divisions over which correctives are most needed to counter the inequities of the economic system. So while there is bipartisan agreement that the economic system favors some groups over others, the electorate is sharply polarized on the retributive and redistributive actions needed to repair the system. On questions of correcting institutionalized racism, the two political sides evaluate such efforts in diametrically opposed terms: A greater portion of the left has begun to see such efforts as central to correcting past injustices, while those on the right—particularly the white working class—see only another handout unfairly favoring groups other than their own.2222xA June 2020 poll revealed that support for reparations continues to divide sharply by race. About half of African American respondents agreed that the US government should “use taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States,” whereas only one in ten white respondents agreed. But there are also sharp divides by party affiliation: About one in three Democrats agreed, compared to one in five Republicans. See Katanga Johnson, “U.S. Public More Aware of Racial Inequality but Still Rejects Reparations: Reuters/Ipsos Polling,” Reuters, June 25, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-reparations-poll/u-s-public-more-aware-of-racial-inequality-but-still-rejects-reparations-reuters-ipsos-polling-idUSKBN23W1NG. At a more foundational level, Republicans and Democrats are divided on the degree to which discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities contributes to inequality: Only 11 percent of Republicans agree that discrimination is a factor, compared to 50 percent of Democrats. See “Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer than Half Call It a Top Priority,” Pew Research Center, January 2020, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/most-americans-say-there-is-too-much-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-but-fewer-than-half-call-it-a-top-priority/. A zero-sum understanding of such efforts stirs only greater resentment toward the beneficiaries of such programs, who are seen as being just as culpable as the privileged elites in violating the holy covenant between respectable work and fair reward.2323xArlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York, NY: New Press, 2016).
It is fair to say that a new economic populism—at least as a coherent political movement with significant voting power—has been rendered impotent by cultural identity markers that shape voting patterns. But even more detrimental to any political organizing is the large number of the economically alienated who are swayed by neither left-wing nor right-wing appeals to populism. Their perception of a “rigged” economy goes hand in hand with perceptions of a “rigged” political system offering little hope for change. The best data on the 40 percent of eligible adults who do not vote in US elections (around 100 million Americans in 2016) suggests that they are, in comparison to voters, more likely to be people of color, more likely to make less than $30,000 a year, more likely to have had trouble paying bills in the past twelve months, less likely to have a savings account, and less likely to have any kind of retirement account or health care.2424xSources for these data are “The Party of Nonvoters,” Pew Research Center, October 31, 2014, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/10/31/the-party-of-nonvoters-2/; and Fernand Amandi, principal, “The 100 Million Project: The Untold Story of American Non-Voters,” Knight Foundation, https://knightfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/The-100-Million-Project_KF_Report_2020.pdf.
This political reality blunts the chance of real populist challenges to the monopolistic behavior of many of the large corporations that have in recent years consistently pursued anticompetitive acquisitions and mergers, exploited vender lock-in powers, forced no-compete clauses on low-wage workers, and taken advantage of general economies of scale to eliminate competition. A 2014 Wall Street Journal guest editorial by PayPal founder Peter Thiel sums up the view of the new monopolists: Competition, he wrote, is now only for “losers.”2525xPeter Thiel, “Competition Is for Losers,” Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/peter-thiel-competition-is-for-losers-1410535536. Winners, in other words, no longer have to play on a level playing field. Perhaps what Americans need from their leaders is not so much moralistic scolding about personal responsibility but greater reflection on why figures like Thiel have come to profess an economic mythology so contrary to traditional mythic commitments to fairness and equal opportunity.
Here we confront what the shrewd neoconservative thinker Irving Kristol predicted would be the central challenge of bourgeois, secular societies: establishing an acceptable set of rules of distributive justice.2626xIrving Kristol, “Capitalism, Socialism, Nihilism,” The Public Interest 31 (Spring 1973): 3–19. Unlike most conservative theorists before or after him, Kristol rejected justifications of unequal outcomes that resorted either to appeals to the natural order, such as proposed by Bernard Mandeville or David Hume, or to the technocratic assurances of market-promoting economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Both rationalizations, in Kristol’s view, relied on ex post facto accounts of justice: Conditions of inequality must be necessary, or else the free market would not have created them; therefore, those conditions are legitimate. Kristol found such an explanation satisfactory only for philosophers: “Ordinary people will see it merely as a self-serving ideology; they insist on a more ‘metaphysical’ justification of social and economic inequalities.”2727xIbid., 11.
Yet Kristol saw in the conditions of the capitalism of his day no clear way forward. The simplistic Protestant ethic that linked virtue with success had “withered away,” while the current regnant views of Friedman and other neoliberals signaled, in Kristol’s view, the abandonment of traditional virtue or any commitment to the common good. Such economists were effectively smuggling in a “hidden metaphysics” according to which the hidden hand would by itself ensure a stable bourgeois society even amid the widespread pursuit of vice. Rejecting this as self-destructive nihilism, Kristol foresaw that its inability to justify the fair distribution of rewards would lead to greater discontent and unrealistic demands for absolute equality of outcomes.
Kristol’s argument sheds helpful light on where we find the economic mythologies of the present moment, which are in some ways in better shape than he would have predicted. Most Americans remain deeply invested in the vision of personal character as being inseparable from success, at least in terms of constructing one’s place in the social order and maintaining a sense of personal dignity. But Kristol is correct in arguing that the smuggled-in hidden metaphysics of the neoliberal economists has failed to live up up to the job. Capitalism now seems unable to locate principles of distribution that can grant legitimacy to the present arrangements, particularly as the left and the right have both come to recognize the constraining structures of inequality in the past and the costly carelessness of elites in the last two decades. Inside-the-beltway economists like Michael Strain will continue to double down on ex post facto declarations of justice while decrying any challenge to the system as indulgence in narratives of victimhood. What such scolds overlook is the degree to which even the most populist voices today aspire to an economic system that remains competitive and fair—in which hard work is rewarded and Adam Smith’s invisible hand still guides the dispersion of shared prosperity. Like the Populists of a century ago, these present voices of populism have not failed to notice where the egoism and vice of the few continue to threaten the competitive system as a whole, obstructing the ability of many to achieve a livelihood and the conditions of a dignified existence. What remains to be seen is the degree to which a pluralistic and polarized society is able not only to confer subjective meaning on its own economic prospects but also to arrive at a consensus on principles of distribution that can yield a flourishing and well-ordered society for all.