Do not, however, count Jerry Z. Muller among the uninformed. Muller is a professor of history at The Catholic University of America and has written extensively about the system of production and distribution that, in one form or another, now dominates the global economy. His 36-lecture series, “Thinking About Capitalism,” also is available from The Teaching Company.
Recently, Muller penned a lengthy overview of capitalism for Foreign Affairs magazine, “Capitalism and Equality”. Muller’s article addresses issues still festering from the financial crisis and Great Recession. Notably, Muller muses about the widening gap between the materially rich and everyone else, why the chasm exists and what might be done to address it.
His diagnosis seems assured to please no one, which just might suggest it’s worth thinking about. In direct language, Muller says that American politicians on both ends of the spectrum have it wrong.
He argues that inequality is an inevitable byproduct of a market-based system, since not all participants are equally adept at exploiting its opportunities. “Inequality and insecurity are perennial features of capitalism,” he writes.
But Muller also warns that leaving the widening wealth and income gaps entirely unaddressed is short-sighted, since inequality could ignite a backlash against the capitalist system itself. In fact, Muller suggests that the rise of the modern social welfare state enabled capitalism and democracy to co-exist by neutering the potentially destabilizing effects of economic insecurity. Still, Muller doesn’t believe that raising taxes on the rich is the answer. “Some degree of post-market redistribution through taxation is both possible and necessary, but just how much is ideal will inevitably be contested, and however much it is, it will never solve the underlying problem.”
Muller doesn’t consider education to be a panacea either, for reasons he lays out in detail. However his arguments strike you, you’ll find that Muller provides a thorough and accessible history of the capitalist system, beginning with its gaining traction in 17th century Europe. He references thinkers such as Rousseau, Marcuse and Voltaire, discusses how capitalism has changed family dynamics multiple times and in multiple ways, explains how economic dynamism and insecurity go hand and hand, and shows how globalization has amplified those trends.
You’ll get the sense that capitalism is a dynamic system that’s constantly evolving. My advice? Read Muller’s article slowly, think about every sentence, and keep an open mind. Yes, the views might be one person’s opinion, but they’re deeply considered.