Irving Kristol, who died last month at age 89, inspired some highly mixed feelings in me. On the positive side, this renowned public intellectual was possessed of political realism, a firm anti-utopian grasp of the possible. Like Thomas Sowell and P.J. O’Rourke, though more understated, he had a superb gift for deflating the morally-charged conceits and histrionics of Left egalitarianism. On the negative side, he exhibited a shockingly narrow and vitriolic view of contemporary culture. That hatred, unfortunately, did much to sour his view of capitalism. And his widespread influence on this count has become painfully apparent.
Arguably more than anyone else in the 20th century, Irving Kristol and Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) defined, in different ways, the American Right’s view of capitalism. Each thought little of latter-day liberalism and the capitalists who accommodated it, but Kristol believed that businessmen who behaved contrarily to civilized (or “bourgeois”) norms were at least as bad as socialists. Established political authorities thus have an obligation to ban certain buyer-seller transactions – a great many of them, actually. Modern societies, like ancient ones, must affirm objective truths.
Mises, by contrast, saw projecting motive onto capitalists and their customers as a futile and potentially tyrannical exercise. In his book, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, the preeminent Austrian economist observed that animosity toward capitalism is manifest in a dislike of capitalists. Opponents of business, he argued, view businessmen as profit-obsessed reprobates undermining societal well-being:
As they see it, this ghastly mode of society’s economic organization has brought about nothing but mischief and misery…For these scoundrels nothing counts but their moneyed interests. They do not produce good and really useful things, but only what will yield the highest profits. They poison bodies with alcoholic beverages and tobacco, and souls and minds with tabloids, lascivious books and silly moving pictures. The ‘ideological superstructure’ of capitalism is a literature of decay and degradation, the burlesque show and the art of strip-tease, the Hollywood pictures and the detective stories.
Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Townhall.com Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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