How Sociopathic Capitalism Came to Rule the World

Corporate executives haven’t always believed that transactions must have winners and losers. But that’s not Donald J. Trump’s view.

A remote-controlled plane resembling Donald Trump releases fake money.
A remote-controlled plane resembling Donald Trump releases fake money as it flies over a beach in Southern California. (Mike Blake / Reuters)

The stories we tell ourselves, far more than the evidence of scientific analysis, determine how we interpret the world around us. Accordingly, the fate of capitalism rests in no small measure on the real and imagined characters whose ethics and efforts, at any given time, seem to embody the system. Whether the system is identified with Bill Gates or Bernie Madoff, Horatio Alger or Gordon Gekko, opinions about how exactly capitalism works, no less than its moral fitness, reflect the heroes and villains who drive these tales.

Whichever of these two designations best describes Donald J. Trump, he is clearly a chief protagonist, the world over, in the contemporary tale of capitalism. This has been clear enough since at least the spring of this year, when the man known to millions around the world for the lurid catchphrase “You’re fired!” became the first political novice from the business world to become a major-party nominee for president since Wendell Willkie in 1940.

Given that presidential campaigns require a candidate to endlessly descant on economic matters, rather than read between the lines of his behavior, people can look to Trump himself as his own best interpreter. “I beat people,” the candidate explained to Fox News’ Sean Hannity shortly after he announced that he was running for president last year. “I win.” Hannity had inquired into Trump’s credentials to be commander in chief, but he might just as well have asked him about his strategic mindset for business negotiations. “We don’t have victories anymore,” Trump declared in his announcement speech the day before. “We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us.”

Capitalism as zero-sum combat was certainly not the way many of the most prominent economists of the past half century preferred to think about commercial exchange. In Capitalism and Freedom, the Nobel Prizewinner Milton Friedman assigned trade a central role in defending his vision of a highly complex society organized largely without the help of the visible hand of government. “The possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation,” he wrote of this vision, “rests on the elementary—yet frequently denied—proposition that both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed.” Set aside for a moment the italicized clause as well as the qualifier yet frequently denied—more on them later. For now, it is enough to point out that Friedman presents an ideal of commercial exchange that emphasizes not only a both-sides-win vision of trade but also the essentially civil nature of such engagement.

The civilizing effect of commerce has been a central argument on behalf of industrial development and liberal trade policies since at least the 18th century. “In times when industry and the arts flourish,” the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, “men are kept in perpetual occupation, and enjoy, as their reward, the occupation itself, as well as those pleasures which are the fruits of their labor.” Indeed, he continued, “the more these refined arts advance, the more sociable men become,” with the result that “they must feel an encrease in humanity, from the very habit of conversing together, and contributing to each other’s pleasure and entertainment.”

The 1754 essay from which these observations are drawn influenced Hume’s dear friend and fellow Scot Adam Smith as he organized the lectures that would later evolve into The Wealth of Nations. Among the many challenges Smith confronted in his attempt to establish the first principles of a new economic theory was how to square a system predicated on self-interest with the sociable demands of civilized society. His answer anticipates (and no doubt influenced) Friedman by stressing the inherently cooperative nature of commercial exchange.

In the unusually lyrical passage that concludes the opening chapter of The Wealth of Nations, Smith celebrates the “joint labour” that is required to meet even the most basic needs of a typical worker. “Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress and household furniture”—shirts, shoes, table, and chairs, to say nothing of the food he eats or the roof over his head—“we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to, what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated.” For Smith, the cooperative nature of capitalism helped blunt the selfish tendencies his system otherwise seemed to endorse. Humans not only had to work together for a complex economy to develop, but, as Hume had suggested, such daily engagement strengthened bonds of trust, established common purpose, and fostered mutual understanding.

While it is true that 19th-century critics such as Karl Marx had a hard time seeing civilized behavior as a cause, much less an effect, of the Industrial Revolution, by the early decades of the 20th century, close observers of advanced capitalism had largely returned to the sunny optimism of economists before them, going so far as to claim (as John Maynard Keynes did) that the socialization of capitalism would tame and perhaps even retire the commercial necessity of selfishness. In a 1927 address at Harvard Business School, the industrialist Owen D. Young urged students not to “shut [their] eyes to the broader interests and responsibilities of business.” Such willful blindness, he said, was consistent with the grubby “individualism” of old-fashioned business, but should be resisted by modern professionals newly minted with a master’s in business administration.

At the time of the address, Young was the president of General Electric, an entity whose very complexity appeared to underscore the need for commerce to be guided by a sense of common purpose rather than the fervid “individualism” that seemed more conducive to chaos than industrial efficiency. This conclusion reflected both the hyper-rationalization of business activity—the rise of scientific management, the introduction of complex accounting, the displacement of rules of thumb for documented “best practices”—and the elaborate bureaucratic arrangements that facilitated the creation of massive companies like GE. Indeed, for Young and his contemporaries, a capitalism that emphasized cooperation and common cause was less a subjective preference for how an enterprise might be run than the conventional wisdom of those who had dedicated their life to commerce.

Born in 1912, Milton Friedman was part of a postwar generation of business observers who departed sharply from the likes of Keynes and Young in their vision of capitalism. Harrowed by the existential struggles with communism and fascism, these individuals combined a reflexive distrust of collective intentions with economic insights that suggested such instincts were actually commercially counterproductive. Whether it was Joseph Schumpeter’s lionization of the individual entrepreneur as the agent of creative destruction and, therein, economic development; Eugene Fama’s assessment of government intervention as inimical to market efficiency; or Michael Jensen and William Meckling’s reinterpretation of the firm as nothing more than a “nexus of a set of contracting relationships among individuals,” all of these contentions served to revitalize individual self-interest as the key instrument of industrial advancement.

On their face, these proposals were no more hostile to a sense of public-spiritedness than Adam Smith’s original argument on behalf of self-interest, but the rhetoric that accompanied them often seemed to indict altruistic intentions. Consider the opening salvo of Milton Friedman’s landmark 1970 New York Times Magazine essay, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” Reflecting on what, for him, was an annoying tendency among executives to conflate commercial aims with the common good, Friedman claimed that “businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned ‘merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable ‘social’ ends,” such as “providing em­ployment, eliminating discrimination, [and] avoid­ing pollution.” In fact, he said, such businessmen were actually “preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism” and making themselves “unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces” that undermine free markets and a free society.

If Friedman’s aim was ultimately to vindicate the beneficial effects of commercial self-interest, rhetoric such as his tended to diminish the efforts of those moved by a sincere concern for others, dismissing them as either well-intentioned idiots (“If you really wanted to help people … ”) or ideological pawns. At the same time, such talk recast the very nature of capitalism in the popular mind, transforming it from an essentially cooperative activity to a renegade endeavor, one that flourished in disruption and favored those more inclined to gleefully thumb their nose at convention than graciously find common ground.

The rise of renegade capitalism—a spirit that ripened in the ’60s and ’70s before flowering in the greed-is-good decade that followed—breached an uneasy truce that individuals like Adam Smith had struggled to preserve between competition and cooperation, the two forces that sustained, as a moral and practical matter, a dynamic economy. If the generation of Keynes and Young had taken the expediency of the competitive drive for granted, those who followed returned the favor by downplaying cooperation in commercial transactions as an unremarkable act without any secondary effects of moral or social significance.

Such developments have important implications for the remainder of Friedman’s trade thesis and its relationship to the Republican nominee: If the “possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation” is, as Friedman put it, “frequently denied,” that may be because, under the sentimental sway of renegade capitalism, the transactions Friedman describes too often relish of something unpleasant even when they are “voluntary and informed.” For anyone who has ever had her immediate circumstances exploited for commercial gain—whether it be a $7 Diet Coke at the airport or an outrageously high-interest payday loan—a world of ruthless competitors guided by nothing more than blind ambition for profit is hardly a pleasant place. At the same time, when Friedman’s stipulations come to be regarded as less an ideal for commercial transactions than simply a lawful limit—and how can they seem much more to someone convinced of the moral and practical warrant of self-interest?—the provisos “voluntary and informed” can easily appear to be mere obstacles to self-advancement that call for clever circumvention.

Donald Trump, a man who has made a career renegotiating agreed-upon terms and exploiting ambiguities in contract language (real as well as imagined), seems the embodiment of such an approach to business. Rather than regard voluntary and informed transactions as a model for commercial exchange, to him, any business deal appears like a small battle in a never-ending war for financial supremacy.

The upshot of such an approach is something dismal and squalid: Vulnerability is targeted, duress exploited, and ignorance thoroughly mined. Nothing about such conduct is especially civil. And while one might nonetheless maintain that, in a world full of such agents, both parties to business transactions still benefit from them—and so everyone else more broadly benefits from their doing business—such a conclusion will invariably smack of something sterile, scientific, and ultimately specious, for most people certainly won’t feel that way.

Donald Trump certainly doesn’t. His rejection of Friedman’s vision of trade is clearly not a considered view but a gut reaction. The story he tells himself about capitalism is one that involves a high-stakes game of winners and losers—those who beat, and those who get beaten. As such, it seems axiomatic to him: In any deal, whether it involves individuals or independent nations, only one side can win. As a matter of economic science, Donald Trump may be wrong, but with respect to the sensibility that guides his approach to business and colors his understanding of capitalism, it may be the case that the GOP nominee is simply a man of his time—and ours.