Dr. Andrew Bernstein is a philosopher and lecturer who frequents many American universities. His lectures and writings cover a variety of philosophical and literary topics. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, as well as teaching at SUNY Purchase. We are grateful to be interviewing him.
Slade Mendenhall is an editor at themendenhall.com
SM: I want to start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed Capitalism Unbound and can’t wait to proceed on to The Capitalist Manifesto. Could you say a bit about the differences between the two, what readers can expect from each?
The Capitalist Manifesto is a 500 page scholarly book, filled with hundreds of endnotes and an extended annotated bibliography. It represents years of research, especially regarding the actual history of capitalism, a subject rarely studied and widely unknown. The book is a sustained, integrated argument in support of capitalism, explaining the moral, economic, and historic superiority of the system of individual rights to all forms of statism.
Capitalism Unbound is its main points distilled into 130 pages for the intelligent layman, stripped of all endnotes and bibliography, so essentialized as to be jam-packed with meaning. The challenge of condensing so much important information and analysis into so short a space was exhilarating and—in all modesty—my success at this task makes Capitalism Unbound my personal favorite of the books I have written. What it accomplishes in 130 pages is outstanding; I strongly recommend anyone interested in capitalism, or political economy more broadly—or its underlying moral foundations—to read this book. One Objectivist reader described Capitalism Unbound as “’Common Sense’ for the 21st century,” a comparison to Thomas Paine that I find undeniably flattering and, perhaps, apt.
SM: Capitalism Unbound is divided into three distinct parts, each addressing three distinct arguments for capitalism. Would you tell us what those three arguments are and explain the significance of each?
What is new in my books on capitalism is the essentials of its actual history. The history of capitalism has been largely distorted by Marxist intellectuals and journalists—or, alternatively, simply ignored. Nobody teaches or writes an overview providing an accurate history of capitalism. So the case for capitalism’s historic superiority to all forms of statism is of vital importance.
The case for its moral/philosophic superiority is even more important. This vital work was done by Ayn Rand, and then succinctly summarized in my 2 books on capitalism. Similarly, the economists have done an effective job explaining capitalism’s economic superiority to all forms of statism—and all I had to do was provide the essence of their case.
So the important contributions of Capitalism Unbound and The Capitalist Manifesto are: 1. To finally present an accurate history of capitalism, and 2. To provide an integrated form of one-stop intellectual shopping for capitalism’s historic, economic, and moral-philosophic superiority to statism.
SM: You make an interesting argument for replacing the term “the Gilded Age”, as applied to the period surrounding the Industrial Revolution, with “the Innovative Period”. Would you explain the significance of this change in terminology?
“The Gilded Age” refers to a period that looks prosperous on the surface but cloaks an era of extreme corruption underneath it. The minor objection is that even if corruption were pandemic in America of this era, that distinguishes it from exactly nothing. Corruption, especially in politics, is always pandemic.
But the major problem is that whatever corruption existed is paltry compared to the distinguishing, eye-popping, stand-out essence of the period: the extraordinary advances in applied science, technology, and industrialization. For example, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and the electric lighting system; Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone; American architects designed the first skyscrapers; George Eastman revolutionized the field of photography—and George Washington Carver did the same in agricultural science; the Wright brothers pioneered the field of aviation—and Henry Ford revolutionized personal transportation in America. This represents but a short list of American advances during this era. From now on, the era must be known for what it actually was: The Inventive Period.
SM: Objectivism in general and Capitalism Unbound in particular offers a unique moral argument for capitalism. Would you explain a bit of what that argument is?
Ayn Rand took the philosophic bull by the horns and celebrated rational egoism as the moral foundation of capitalism. She showed that egoism, properly understood, forms the logical basis of what she termed “benevolence”—of a consistent goodwill toward innocent human beings—and consequently that the enormity of capitalism’s life-giving benefits are to be expected; for they flow directly from its moral foundations. This is revolutionary. But notice that since her writings there is little in the Objectivist literature explicating the logical relationship between egoism and good will. One of the chapters in “Capitalism Unbound” seeks to explicate this relationship—to show that in the absence of a genuine egoism there is no possibility of a genuine good will.
SM: Your book explains a myriad of ways in which the economic history of capitalism has been misunderstood or misrepresented. Who is responsible for these misconstruances? Economists? Historians? Politicians?
The full history of capitalism—not just regarding economics—has been ignored and/or distorted for at least 150 years. The primary culprits are Marx and Engels—and the dominant school of German philosophy, primarily Kant and Hegel, that stands behind and makes them possible. The major philosophers of modern Western culture are, thereby, fundamentally responsible for the egregious injustices wreaked on capitalism. They set the terms for serious intellectual discussion of the subject. Capitalism is discussed within the parameters of such theories as: the dominance—cognitively and morally—of society over the individual; social determinism; virtue as dutiful service; the preeminence of the state, to which an individual owes unremitting service; an intrinsic, inescapable, and bloody class struggle; the exploitation of the working class; etc. Within such a theoretical framework, it is inevitable that capitalism is misrepresented and bitterly maligned.
SM: You make mention in your book of “The Philosophic Causes of Widespread Poverty”. Would those be in any way related to the philosophic causes at the root of today’s widespread debt?
In the broadest sense, yes. Whenever a society is plagued by widespread economic failings, the root cause is always statism in one of its many hideous forms. The hallmark of a free society and free market is that the principle of individual rights protects the best members of mankind: those who choose to use their minds. Independence in cognition is protected by independence in politics. The best minds are free to resolve mankind’s problems, including economic ones. But statism, of its essence, coerces men to obey the state. Freedom of thinking is inevitably curtailed. The best minds are restricted in their efforts to resolve humanity’s problems. The degree of governmental suppression represents the degree of economic problems. Under complete statism—pre-capitalist feudal Europe or current Communist regimes—there is complete collapse, including widespread starvation. Under partial statism—as in current America and other mixed economies—there is only partial collapse, including widespread debt.
SM: What is your view on the current state of affairs in American politics? There is a growing divide in our country that makes some people hopeful and others cautious. Do you feel that groups such as the Tea Parties offer the potential for real change? What do these groups need to do in order to maintain the proper course?
The pessimists and the optimists regarding America’s current political situation are both correct. It will get worse before it gets better—but it will get better. The more you focus on the short-term, the more grounds for pessimism; the more you expand your time frame, the more grounds for optimism. Ayn Rand showed that philosophy moves the world. The liberals are dominated by a diluted form of Marxism; the conservatives, by an attenuated version of Christianity. Neither philosophy can promote freedom. With the country still dominated by these two irrational creeds, its downward course will necessarily continue.
But Objectivism is coming. Its ascent in American culture is now clearly visible. It takes time for a revolutionary philosophy to take hold. Notice that the transition from the Middle and Dark Ages to the Renaissance took centuries. But it did occur. Similarly for the change from feudalism/monarchy to individual rights and capitalism. Over the past 20 years, Objectivism has established a foothold in America’s intellectual culture. The rising sales of “Atlas Shrugged” are one indicator—and the movie version a second. A forthcoming documentary on “Atlas Shrugged” is an example—as was the documentary on Rand’s life that was nominated for an Academy Award. A postage stamp commemorating Rand was an example—and the openness of the contemporary publishing world to Objectivist writers another important illustration. But the most important indicator by far is the willingness of contemporary university Philosophy programs to establish fellowships for the study of Objectivism, e.g., the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Texas, and others. “He who controls the universities, controls the culture.” We are now in the universities—and through the front door.
Regarding the Tea Parties, they have the potential to be a positive force, for they show the American people’s active dislike of socialism. But we must convince them to read “Atlas Shrugged,” thereby showing them that Objectivism, not Christianity, is the sole philosophy providing the intellectual foundations of individual rights and capitalism.
SM: Objectivist writers tend to focus rather disproportionately on America and see it as a sort of crux of liberty. Could you discuss the significance of America in the fight for capitalism and individual rights?
America, as the nation of the Enlightenment, was conceived in individual rights and liberty. No other country was. The Old World nations have a long, inglorious history of statism in multiple forms, and its intellectuals have never outgrown the practice of state worship. The principle of individual rights held only passing currency in Europe, mostly in Britain, and then faded, swamped by 19th century German philosophy. America, holding statist principles in only the most attenuated form, has gone much more slowly through the process of philosophic decline. This is why Objectivist intellectuals—including and especially a certain Russian immigrant of gigantic intellectual stature—properly focus(ed) on America as the world’s beacon of liberty, now, in the past, and, above all, for the future.
SM: In your book, you are a clear and uncompromising advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. As advocates of the same principles, the authors of this site are often opposed not by moral arguments, but by sympathetic voices who simply do not see such aspirations as feasible. How do you respond to those who view true capitalism as an impracticable ideal?
You will be very interested in my forthcoming book, Capitalist Solutions (pub date: 9/30/11), which answers exactly this question. It shows that on issue after issue—Islamic Totalitarianism, environmentalism/man-made global warming, healthcare, education, abortion, immigration, the right to bear arms, the war on drugs, and gay marriage—the principles of individual rights and free markets provide the answer—both morally and practically
SM: What is the first proper step in the transition from our current mixed economy to pure capitalism? Where do we start?
That’s easy: Eliminate the brain-paralyzing system of government schooling and establish a fully free market of education. Such a system—as it did in America’s past, prior to the imposition of government schools in the mid-19th century—will create a society of independent thinkers, who will establish a system of political independence requisite to the free functioning of their minds. For details, see the chapter on education in “Capitalist Solutions,” or read my essay on the topic in the Winter 2010/11 edition of “The Objective Standard.”
SM: I can personally recommend the article and eagerly look forward to “Capitalist Solutions” coming out next month. Thank you, Doctor Bernstein, and, as always, good premises.