06 January 2011

Bipolar Capitalism and the virtue of self-control

Capitalism has a bipolar disorder, George Will writes in his latest column. It "demand[s] self-controlled workers yet uninhibited shoppers." It isn't clear whether these are contradictory impulses from a capitalist standpoint, but the juxtaposition troubles Will. What troubles him more is a perceived American tendency away from the self-discipline Will seems to regard as paramount for capitalist society to function properly. The extreme individualism of the internet age leaves people feeling less accountable to each other, apparently, while self-aggrandizing academics and political enablers encourage people to think that their shortcomings aren't actually failures of self-disciplines but medical disorders that can't be helped. Will fears that we're losing "character" the less we attribute failings to failures of character and the less we assert an ability or obligation to improve ourselves. This is an interesting topic for a non-ideological discussion, but Will can't help bringing ideology into it a little. He trots out the old argument that those lacking "character," those who renounce personal responsibility for overcoming their shortcomings, are more likely to support expansive government social programs, while those who believe in "free will" and accept responsibility for self-improvement will be more skeptical toward those programs. He also notes a well-known sociological phenomenon and draws unjustified conclusions from it:
[A]ffluent people, for whom food is a relatively minor expense, are less likely than poor people to be obese. Surely this has something to do with habits of self-control that are conducive to social success generally.

This assertion is vulnerable on many fronts. Most obviously, it is well known that the affluent have easier access to healthy food than the urban poor, who subsist on cheap processed foods because that's all the nearest market is likely to carry. It seems unlikely to me, meanwhile, that business success can be predicted by eating habits. Will's statement boils down to a cry of faith -- there has to be a correlation between "self-control" and "social success." This takes us back to his troubled comment about bipolar capitalism. Will seems to think, based on the same generations of teaching we've all been exposed to, that capitalism has something to do with self-control -- deferred gratification, steady work habits, frugality, etc. Is the assumption justified? You might argue that the most successful capitalists do display at least some of the traits identified with self-control, compared to their rivals, but it doesn't follow that capitalism itself depends on them. Capitalism certainly didn't invent these virtues; they secured many a virtuous craftsman his competency centuries earlier, though they've never guaranteed anyone anything. What if the essence of capitalism, the quality that distinguish it from other forms of labor and capital organization, has nothing to do with self-control in most senses of the word? It's a commonplace in some quarters, after all, to equate capitalism with "greed," which is hardly synonymous with self-control. On the other hand, self-control is usually a means, not an end unto itself, and can be employed for ends both innocuous and insidious, by the diligent scientist and the patient terrorist alike. There are also multiple levels of self-control to which we can appeal, not just the utilitarian kind but the kind of self-control that would restrain greed rather than reward it. Americans and people generally should discuss the importance of self-control for the future of civilization, and the discussion should include a debate over what sort of self-control is most important for individuals and societies alike. The results might be surprising.

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