Now is the time to articulate a vision of capitalism that doesn't rely on the Visible Hand.
An inaugural address finds presidents at their most philosophical. Policy prescriptions are neither expected nor desired, and the solemnity of the occasion lends itself to reflection.
But a second inaugural address differs from the first in one important way, for it must respond to recent history. A newly installed president, without any real responsibility for the larger events that saw his election, can indulge in hopeful prophecy, but a re-elected president owns the immediate past. It, and not his address, is prologue to a second term, and so, especially in troubled times, his speech must take shape around present challenges.
The financial crisis cast a long shadow over President Obama’s first term. Yet in his battle to deliver the economy from a steep financial downturn, he stumbled into a war of sorts over how capitalism works. This is a conflict the president would no doubt have rather avoided—the presidency is challenging enough without having to convince a substantial portion of the electorate that your aim is not to subvert capitalism but to save it from itself. However, the deep disagreement over how the crisis came about, much less how it might be resolved, made an ideological debate over the very nature of capitalism all but unavoidable.
What exactly is the nub of the disagreement? During the election, everything Republicans believed to be wrong with the president’s approach to economic policy was epitomized by the “You didn’t build that” remark. The remark came amid off-the-cuff comments President Obama made at a campaign rally in July. A first-time listener might be forgiven for mistaking the endlessly disputed that, but a review of the transcript clearly shows it refers to public infrastructure—roads, bridges, educational institutions, and the like—that is necessary, if not sufficient, for a private enterprise to thrive.
At the time, some Republicans tried to twist the remark to suggest that Obama believed that business owners don’t actually have a hand in building their own businesses, a contention that was not implausible so much as incoherent. However, shrewder observers insisted that the significance of the remark lay beyond its plain meaning. “It’s an explanation,” Paul Ryan declared in a campaign stop at the site of the remark. “It tells us why our economy is not growing like it should. It tells us the mindset that he’s using to lead our government. It tells us that he believes in a government-centered society and a government-driven economy.” For Ryan and others, it suggested that President Obama rejected the “job creators” vision of economic development favored by Republicans, or what one might call the Visible Hand theory of capitalism.
This theory finds its first and most formidable expression in the work of Joseph Schumpeter, the mid-20th century Austrian economist who cast the entrepreneur as the action hero of economic growth. As far back as Adam Smith, economists had regarded the serene stasis of perfect competition as a kind of endpoint for capitalism. But Schumpeter believed this ideal blinded them not only to the chaotic reality of capitalism but to the revolutionary power of instability to pull or, more accurately, yank an economy ahead.
“Economic progress, in capitalist society, means turmoil,” he declared in his classic work Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. The system “is incessantly being revolutionized from within by new enterprise, i.e., by the intrusion of new commodities or new methods of production or new commercial opportunities into the industrial structure.” The people who fomented such destabilizing changes were Schumpeter’s entrepreneurs. Their efforts constituted a “distinct economic function,” one that gave rise to new possibilities in the capitalist order even as they foreclosed old ones.
Especially in Schumpeter’s early writings, the entrepreneurial class embodies the Visible Hand of capitalism. In his first book, The Theory of Economic Development, Schumpeter celebrates the entrepreneur as a “man of action,” a larger than life individual whose keen intellect, swashbuckling spirit, and stubborn irreverence toward the commercial status quo made his activity “the greatest and most splendid element that economic life offers to the observer.”
But though he never yielded pride of place in Schumpeter’s system, the entrepreneur evolved from a class of superman, distinct and identifiable, to a spirit of sorts that animated capitalism. That evolution is captured by the very way in which Schumpeter emphasized the impact of the entrepreneur. Early on he terms it “creative construction” before changing to the always-capitalized “Creative Destruction,” a subtle revision that prized the secondary consequences of entrepreneurial endeavors over their self-conscious aims.
The shift in emphasis coincided with a greater awareness by Schumpeter of what he called the “cultural performance” of capitalism, its tendency to subvert traditional ways of life and undermine social cohesion. “[O]ne may care less for the efficiency of the capitalist process in producing economic and cultural values,” he candidly admitted, “than for the kind of human beings that it turns out and then leaves to their own devices, free to a make a mess of their lives.”
Ayn Rand’s radical individualism made her the natural person to adopt Schumpeter’s vision and relieve it of its social qualms. Though she never acknowledged her debt to Schumpeter, Rand also locates the engine of capitalism in an “exceptional minority who lift the whole of a free society to the level of their own achievements.”
This passage comes from What Is Capitalism?, an essay published in 1965, 15 years after Schumpeter’s death. In it, Rand provides an eye-opening description of the just deserts implied by her vision of capitalism:
The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains.
In other words, to the victors can’t go spoils enough.
Rand’s ethics of achievement, together with Schumpeter’s opinion of the essential place of the entrepreneur, provide the Visible Hand its moral license and theoretical integrity. In the 2012 campaign, it found an impassioned spokesman in Paul Ryan, whose speech at the Republican National Convention was a celebration of this vision. “With tax fairness and regulatory reform,” he pledged, “we'll put government back on the side of the men and women who create jobs, and the men and women who need jobs.”
Yet even among those sympathetic to the Republican ticket, the unavoidable elitism of the Visible Hand left some feeling cold. “In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other,” wrote Scott Galupo of The American Conservative the morning after Ryan’s speech. “There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers and taxi-drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have ‘built’?”
The answer, of course, is nothing—at least nothing essential to economic development. What so struck Adam Smith about the commercial system he described, “the assistance and co-operation of many thousands,” is entirely taken for granted. The daily labors of a nation are a mere fait accompli to the executive decisions of a few.
Such a vision sits uncomfortably amid democratic values of equality, empathy, and the inherent dignity of the individual, but it becomes intolerable when the theory underpinning it becomes a pretense for naked privilege. Whatever the merits of Schumpeter’s theory of entrepreneurship, his “job creators” were a class defined by spirit, not tax status. To the degree that Republicans conflate the two, they make a travesty of Visible Hand.
An aristocracy of talents is no doubt preferable to the politics of plutocracy, but neither one is commensurate with a vision of capitalism that takes as its point of departure, and its final destination, a concern for the common good. President Obama recognizes this. “Ever since” the financial crisis began, he said in his most powerful speech of the 2012 campaign, “there has been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity; balance and fairness.” This isn’t “just another political debate,” he continued. “This is the defining issue of our time.”
And it will only continue to be, what with the upcoming battles over the sequester and the debt ceiling in addition to ongoing debates over entitlement reform, budget deficits, and tax rates. President Obama’s second inaugural address provides him a unique opportunity to describe the challenges of a common capitalism and to put forward a vision of economic development that doesn’t see us waiting on the deliverance of an enlightened few, but one in which there is dignity and place for everyone to lend a hand.
John Paul Rollert is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.