The Capitalist Next Door (Is Not a Psychopath)

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.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Capitalist Next Door (Is Not a Psychopath)

  1. Dick Richards says:

    Don’t you ever get tired of being right?


  2. Terry Noel says:

    Hee hee…never.


  3. Mother nature laid out her bounty before us: the land, seas, fields, deserts, beasts, fowl, mountains, streams, flowers, trees, and so on. She assigned none of this to anyone in particular; it was simply there. Each man, according to his selfish, greedy heart, however, was driven to seize and secure as much of it as he was able (thus inventing ownership, possession), for his own, exclusive, benefit. In that world of limited resources, thus came conflict and war, as man fought against man to increase his personal stock. And, though, after a while, when the costs of all-out hostilities could be so great that all might perish, trade was invented, it remained war, with notes and coins the new bombs and bullets (capitalism, being a competitive system, is an example of war, from individuals within a society to inter-societal (international) conflict). And so it continues to the present day.

    As things get passed down the generations, inherited, things won, lost, seized by others, bought and sold, all are made handlers of stolen goods. In his stealing from nature, a man steals from all others. But it’s worse than that: for, in doing this, each man steals also from _himself_. In demanding a price for his labours and that which he owns, so he limits their deployment. Thus, the cancer scientist will only work to find a cure for a cancer to the extent that he is paid to do so; limiting the finding of treatments and cures for a disease _which_he_himself_is_as_likely_as_anyone_else_ to get. And so with the pharmaceutical company providing the laboratories and associated resources. And so we limit all human endeavour, all science and progress. (Go tell the kids down on the cancer wards how good that is.) This is the Irony of Selfish Greed; selfish greed sounds good to the selfishly greedy, but, ironically, it is actually harmful to them — and everyone else.

    (Don’t forget that _everything_ has a price on it under an economic system. Even speech has one on it. The more money you have, the louder you can shout, not just talk; the greater the number of people to whom you can; and the higher up the socio-politico-economic scale the ears to hear you. Got a message? Hire billboard space. Launch a newspaper or TV ad campaign. Go buy yourself a newspaper or TV channel. If, and to the extent, you can afford it, that is.

    Democracy? Again, there’s a price sticker. Politicians can be bought and sold just like everything else. Need to get some legislation passed, stopped, or watered down? Ever heard of lobbying? Or maybe a nice, big, fat contribution to a political campaign fund, eh? Not to mention the ol’ cash-stuffed brown envelope passed discretely under the table. When there’s a price sticker on everything, the only voting slips that count are the ones in your wallet; they’re what get things, and get things done; not the one you stuff into the ballot box whenever there’s an election. One man, one vote it aint.

    You think that, if a person just puts in the effort, he or she can achieve anything. But it can never be true. Because it completely fails to take into account, apart from how selfishly greedy you are, your ability. No matter how much effort you put into anything, you’ll never achieve beyond your abilities. A person’s abilities were determined at the moment of their conception; a genetic blueprint, unchosen and forever unalterable. You might as well allocate resources on the basis of any other genetic characteristics, such as hair, eye — or skin — colour. Imagine that. So much for meritocracy.

    You can have an economic system; you can have freedom (including democracy); but you can’t have both at the same place, at the same time.)

    An economic system is a system that allocates resources according to some criteria or other. Some economic systems are consciously devised and implemented; others, such as capitalism, simply reflect our evolved (Darwinian) drives and urges; in the case of capitalism, thus, selfish greed, as I explained, above.

    Selfish greed is as far removed from helping others as it is possible to get; it is the antithesis of helping others. To paint it as some sort of altruistic, philanthropic moral goodness is either a sick joke, ignorant, stupid, or a permutation thereof.

    And, in case you haven’t grasped it yet, a communist-style economic system is just as bad, if not worse, than a capitalist one; it’s having _any_ economic system that is the problem. Free of such systems, we will all collaborate — not compete — with each other; unshackled human endeavour and progress, unlimited and at break-neck speed. And we all benefit, without limit. We think we’re advanced now; we ain’t seen nothin’, yet; from mining other worlds; devising and implementing robotic human-like helpers and workers; super-intelligent computers; conquering mortality (given, of course, that these things are possible at all within the bounds of physics).

    Let’s do the right thing. Also on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.


Leave a Reply to Terry Noel Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s