It seems that con artists, for all their vices, represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss—no small thing in a country in which people have always longed to strike out on their own. They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.
Entrepreneurs have skills that are very much like those of the con men. To raise money to start a business, you’ve got to sell an imagined future—a dream. Before building a single car, Henry Ford had to persuade his major supplier to take stock in lieu of cash, because he didn’t have the money to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of parts.As the sociologist Alex Preda writes, “Talent for persuasion is key: after all, the public must be convinced to part with their money on the basis of the simple promise that an idea will yield profit in the future.” Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you. Like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism.
Of course, this isn't the story capitalists tell about themselves. They preach that success comes from making something, preferably -- when they're preaching to the poor -- after a period of deferred gratification if not outright self-denial. By comparison, Jordan Belfort and his cohorts, in particular, never defer gratification; Belfort's mentor explicitly tells him not to. Whether they intend to or not, con-man films like Wolf and Hustle teach a counter-myth to the American Dream of entrepreneurship based on invention, on selling something of proven or self-evident quality. Both films hint that conmanship is the best if not only route for rags-to-riches success; hence the feeling that government agents are villains or at least killjoys for ending their sprees. They offer no counterexamples of honest success, though the protagonists of Hustle end up legitimate art dealers. The critics who complain that these films glorify excess and immorality probably recognize all of this. Some of them no doubt resent this because they do find the excess immoral, or the immorality excessive. But I wonder whether some resent these films because they think the films tell a truth they don't want people hearing.