John Mueller
Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery

Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon, a Minnesota town invented by humorist Garrison Keillor, operates under a sensible, if rather unexhilarating, slogan: 'If you can't get it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it.' It is my perspective that democracy and capitalism, despite their image problems, have triumphed in part because people have essentially been persuaded to accept a version of Ralph's slogan: The systems can't supply everything, but on balance, people have effectively if sometimes rather reluctantly concluded, if you can't get it with democracy and capitalism, you can probably get along without it.

For example, it is possible to create a society in which order reigns supreme, but experience suggests that society in the process loses flexibility, responsiveness, intellectual growth, and individual freedom. Although they complain about it all the time, democrats have basically decided that, even though democracy is distressingly, profoundly, and necessarily messy and disorderly, it's better, on balance, to get along without the blessings an orderly society can bring.

And capitalism revels in—indeed, seems viscerally to require—a considerable amount of insecurity, risk, and uncertainty. It may be possible, al least in principle, to design an economy in which privilege, station, prices, employment, and economic security are comfortably, reassuringly, and authoritatively preserved. Since these approaches tend to stifle the economically invigorating effects of selfish acquisitiveness, however, they lead to slower growth and to less wealth overall. Experience seems to suggest, then, that it is better to learn to get along without total security.

In addition, capitalism and democracy are in important respects viscerally unequal and unfair at the systemic level, if not at the personal level.

This condition stems naturally and inevitably from the related facts that both systems leave individuals free to pursue their interests and that some will simply do better at the pursuit than others. Thus even when everyone is equally free, some people under democracy will be more successful at manipulating the political system in a beneficial way (extracting favors from it, getting it to support their pet policy projects). And under capitalism, some will prosper because they are more successful at providing goods or services other people happen to value at the moment.

This inequality of result will often emerge because people are differently abled: differently skilled, differently capable. For some people, particularly for those who are inclined to overrate their own abilities, this condition is deeply unpleasant, even unbearable, and they can become resentful.

But inequality will sometimes also result not so much because people are differently abled but because they are differently lucky: They succeed because they just happen to know or be related to someone who can help them out at a crucial point, because they just happen to be in the right place at the right time, or because an ill-considered, even foolish, gamble just happens to pay off. In an important sense, then, freedom is notably unfair. Democracy is perhaps worse off than capitalism with regard to the issues of equality and fairness. Capitalism does not profess to make everyone equally wealthy, but the beguiling, ringing notion that 'all men are created equal' has often been taken to suggest that some sort of political equality is central to democracy; the system can be seen, then, to be viscerally hypocritical.

But if capitalism and democracy can't supply orderliness, certainty, equality, security, and systemic fairness and are thus (only) pretty good in the Ralph's Grocery sense, their image mismatches make them pretty good in opposite senses. Democracy compared to its image is (merely) pretty good, while capitalism compared to its image is (actually) pretty good.

The laid-back and markedly unromantic perspective of the folks at Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery—unexhilarating, perhaps, but blessedly free of misdirecting hyperbole—is relevant to the development of democracy and capitalism in another sense as well.

It seems to be that an institution is likely to be fundamentally sound if it can function adequately when people are rarely, if ever, asked to rise above the ignorance and selfishness with which they have been so richly endowed by their creator. Or, putting it a bit more gently: Since human beings are a flawed bunch, an institution will be more successful if it can work with human imperfections rather than requiring first that the race be reformed into impossible perfection. Therefore, it may well actually be fortunate that democracy does not require people to be good or noble, but merely to calculate what is best for them or what they take to be in the best interest of society, and to seek to further these interests if they happen to be so inclined, while capitalism raises selfishness and acquisitiveness to dominant motivations. And it may be desirable that democracy and capitalism are about as romantic, to apply Charlotte Bronte's phrase, as Monday morning.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.