Recently a friend asked after I commented on a NY Times editorial whether I died a little inside when I bought the paper. “No,” I responded. “I read the article online. I do that now and again to remind myself that there really are people out there who think like that.”
Which brings us to this article, one that strains even my vivid imagination. The author equates capitalism with psychopathy, citing two studies. The first is unavailable in our university databases, and so I was unable to judge it on its merits. The second study is worth a look, and I leave it to the reader to decide whether it is credible. Its main weakness is lack of full reporting on the methods used, making it difficult to tell how much weight to give the conclusions. Its main strength is the variety of ways (seven total) the authors attempt to test their hypothesis that the wealthy are by and large more unethical than their poorer counterparts.
The NY Times author, William Deresiewicz, claims on the basis of these two studies that 10% of Wall Street employees are psychopaths as opposed to 1% of the general population. This he finds unsurprising, since in his view capitalism itself is evil, wicked, mean, and nasty:
Capitalist values are also antithetical to democratic ones. Like Christian ethics, the principles of republican government require us to consider the interests of others. Capitalism, which entails the single-minded pursuit of profit, would have us believe that it’s every man for himself.
Let us first stipulate that there are psychopaths and sociopaths* aplenty in our society. Martha Stout in her book The Sociopath Next Door puts the number of sociopaths in our midst at 4%. Unlike Deresiewicz, though, Stout fails to notice a correlation between Wall Street employment and sociopathy. Let us also note that similar accusations have been leveled at politicians, a charge I find more credible on its face.**
It is surprising that Deresiewicz even bothers to cite research. His conclusion has already been drawn from his definition of capitalism above. There is little point in painting Wall Streeters as psychopaths if all capitalists are evil anyway. Deresiewicz’s conclusion is transcendentally stupid because his premise is mind-numbingly false.
Capitalism is premised on mutually beneficial voluntary behavior. It hinges on profit, the morally admirable result of having improved another’s lot in life through trade. Sociopaths are inclined to better themselves through deceit, a tactic which often catches up with them through the law (if they have truly perpetrated theft or fraud) or by others’ refusal to continuing trading with them. Equating capitalism with sociopathy is intellectually lazy and morally despicable.
Deresiewicz also argues that profit precludes considering the interests of others. Nonsense. Its very existence indicates that partners to a trade each perceived that they would be better off afterward. If the exchange is not voluntary, the result is not profit, but theft.
Which brings us to politicians. Politicians, sociopathic or not, operate in a universe of coercion. Their activities may require consensus-building among peers, but by the time their efforts affect us, it is in the form of a law or regulation–both coercive. Where the capitalist must build value that customers will willingly pay for, the politician need only find enough other people who like telling others what to do. Members of Congress do not lose money when they are dishonest and thus have little ongoing incentive to behave. They do face re-election, but incumbency provides such an electoral advantage that one must do something indescribably outrageous to mobilize an apathetic electorate.
Handing out political favors to businesses is the name of the game in Washington and every other nook and cranny of America big enough to elect someone. Should Deresiewicz want to find the real psychopaths, he need look no further than crony capitalists who cloak themselves in the robes of freedom, but tuck a dagger in their belts.
Revolting ad hominems lobbed at capitalists will not change the facts. Capitalism is about the best in man, not the worst. It is about mutual benefit, not coercion. It is about becoming wealthy through helping others, not by taking from them by force. Like sociopaths, Deresiewicz seeks to destroy that which he claims to value–other people. Maybe it’s time for him to look in the mirror.
*Sociopaths are sometimes said to be spawned by environmental conditions like bad parenting and trauma, while psychopaths are thought to be genetically disposed toward their condition.
**Though I frankly doubt is any better supported by the evidence.