the national interest

Steve Jobs, Occupy Wall Street, and the Capitalist Ideal

The Occupy Wall Street movement has reopened a fundamental debate about capitalism and the role of government, and the death of Steve Jobs clarifies some of the questions at stake. For the right, Jobs and Apple serve as the handiest metaphor for the genius of the private sector (and the failure of government). Mitt Romney likes to wave around his iPhone, a metaphor for capitalism, and accuse President Obama of employing a “pay phone strategy,” a metaphor for government.

National Review deputy managing editor Kevin Williamson likewise counterposes the brilliance of Apple with the ugliness of government:

I was down at the Occupy Wall Street protest today, and never has the divide between the iPhone world and the politics world been so clear: I saw a bunch of people very well-served by their computers and telephones (very often Apple products) but undeniably shortchanged by our government-run cartel education system. And the tragedy for them — and for us — is that they will spend their energy trying to expand the sphere of the ineffective, hidebound, rent-seeking, unproductive political world, giving the Barney Franks and Tom DeLays an even stronger whip hand over the Steve Jobses and Henry Fords. And they — and we — will be poorer for it.
And to the kids camped out down on Wall Street: Look at the phone in your hand. Look at the rat-infested subway. Visit the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, then visit a housing project in the South Bronx. Which world do you want to live in?

Personally, I want to live in a world in which it is possible to ride the subway down to the Apple Store. Preferably without stepping over the bodies of people dying of easily treatable diseases for lack of insurance.

Is that such a difficult concept? Apparently it is. The liberal vision of modified capitalism has always been flanked on both sides by a right and a left that agree that capitalism is indivisible. The socialists and the free market absolutists agree that it’s all or nothing — if you object to the worst features of capitalism, you object to all of capitalism, and we must keep it all or scrap it.

It’s currently an open question whether Occupy Wall Street will ultimately take the form of an anti-capitalist movement. There is a long, grim history of left-wing movements being hijacked by their most radical elements, which are usually the most organized and fanatical. For one example of this hijacking, take a gander at this “collective statement” from the protestors in Zuccotti Park. It’s filled with Marxist drivel. (“They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press. … They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media. … They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.”) The point is that corporations are responsible for all the world’s ills, and the only conclusion is that we must do away with them all.

On the other hand, the intellectual influences most apparent in the movement are those of advocates of regulated capitalism, like Joe Stiglitz. There is a reason the movement is called “Occupy Wall Street,” not “Occupy Main Street” or “Occupy Silicon Valley.” It is no doubt because most of the participants, or sympathizers, understand that Wall Street is not the same thing as free enterprise — that it is one element that, unlike Apple, poses a unique threat to the functioning of the free marketplace.

If you define the problem as “corporations,” then you lose the capacity to make these distinctions. For an example of this same analytic trap on the right, return to another bit from Williamson’s National Review essay:

The beauty of capitalism — the beauty of the iPhone world as opposed to the world of politics — is that that question does not matter one little bit. Whatever drove Jobs, it drove him to create superior products, better stuff at better prices. Profits are not deductions from the sum of the public good, but the real measure of the social value a firm creates. Those who talk about the horror of putting profits over people make no sense at all. The phrase is without intellectual content. Perhaps you do not think that Apple, or Goldman Sachs, or a professional sports enterprise, or an internet pornographer actually creates much social value; but markets are very democratic — everybody gets to decide for himself what he values.

Hold it right there. You see what he did? He made capitalism indivisible again. We were nodding our heads at the way Apple and sports teams and Internet porn fulfills the basic free-market model, offering consumers a wanted good for the market-supplied price, and Williamson snuck Goldman Sachs onto the list. The whole liberal argument is that Goldman Sachs is not like those other things. It is not a case of one person selling a gadget to another person, with nobody else impacted. It creates externalities. One person sells a financial product to another person, and soon we have systemic risk affecting hundreds of millions of people who are not party to the transaction.

That is why we have millions of jobless, and millions more struggling to survive. There are measures to address that problem, which would also allow corporations to reap enormous profits. Will Occupy Wall Street, as a movement, understand this?

Steve Jobs, Occupy Wall Street, and the Capitalist Ideal