I’ve started reading this year’s big book, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Fascinating stuff, at least to this non-economist. He engages in Big Think, which of course appeals to me. Anyone who writes an essay like “Empire of Desire” is bound to enjoy bold speculations about the future of capitalism.

What has struck me most so far (one-hundred-plus pages in as I write) is an apparent contradiction between freedom and determinism.

On the one hand, Piketty believes there’s a large margin of freedom in socio-economic history, which is my fancy way of saying, politics matter. (The most obvious instance in the last century was the massive destruction caused by the Second World War, the political event Piketty thinks pretty much explains the history of inequality in the twentieth century.) And yet he emphasizes the “laws of capitalism” that, if unchecked, inexorably generate greater and greater inequality. Thus the iron law r>g.

My sense is that Piketty presses hard on the “laws of capitalism” in order to heighten the drama. He senses that our age believes in technocrats—economic experts who will solve our problems with monetary policy or some other invisible (and apparently painless) mechanism. He wants to mobilize us. The laws of capitalism doom us—unless we take action!

If that’s a correct explanation of the oddly contradictory tone of his book, then we should read it as an exercise in economic hyperbole designed to motivate us to engage in politics. I’m not unsympathetic to this approach. I share his worry about the “economization” of our political imaginations and our naïve trust in economic engineers. He’s right to think politics matter (which is why so many businesses send so much money to Washington). But a call to action ain’t economics . . . or sociology . . . or even philosophy.

At this point in my reading I worry that Piketty fails as a social theorist at a fundamental level. He seems not to see economic life as part of the larger social organism that’s strikingly adaptive. That means our social norms and economic practices draw upon each other in all kinds of ways.

For example, Piketty wants us to intervene into the “inevitable” processes of capitalism in order to ensure the triumph of “the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.” Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that neither Emerson nor Whitman nor Tocqueville saw democratic culture as based on “meritocratic values.” Better to focus on an analytic point: Why assume that the economic history of the last two hundred years hasn’t shaped our “values”? I’m inclined to see “meritocratic values” superseding aristocratic ones—accomplishment displacing honor—because of the industrial revolution, which would suggest that Piketty wishes to tame the beast with its own products.

Moreover, I don’t think meritocratic values are necessarily congenial to democracy. Our globalized elite today aren’t all that interested in democracy, as the recent hand wringing over the EU elections indicates. That’s not surprising. It’s not clear how “democracy” works in the post-national state context envisioned by EU elites. Also, it’s not clear the decisions of the demos merit the attention of the best and the brightest, at least not if we’re being guided by “meritocratic values.”

Viewed sociologically, “democracy” (a capacious concept, to be sure) is a modern mechanism for reinforcing social solidarity. It’s our way of justifying the use of coercion—“the majority rules,” at least in theory. But there are other ways to justify coercion, including meritocratic ones.

For example, I have the distinct feeling that in Europe today technocrats have legitimacy insofar as they deliver growth—or at least stave off disaster. There’s no reason to think we won’t evolve further in this direction, encouraged by precisely the “meritocratic values” Piketty endorses. Why not coercion justified by bureaucratic efficiency and therapeutic expertise rather than democratic institutions? Why not governance by medical experts and sociological savants?

Piketty perhaps unwittingly encourages this trend. His solutions to the threats capitalism pose to a democratic culture of equality are technocratic—the right educational, tax, and redistribution policies. These are the sorts of things ordinary people aren’t well suited to discuss, involving as they do a facility with technical terminology, data analysis, and a capacity for abstraction. Perhaps, therefore, and in spite of himself, Piketty contributes to the death of politics and the birth of a new technocratic, managerial, and therapeutic mode of justifying coercion and legitimating the social order.

There’s another, much simpler reason to think he does just that. In the past great figures in economics took up the task of either justifying the inequalities capitalism creates (Friedman)—or envision an alternative (Marx). Piketty does neither. Instead, he thinks we going to have to manage capitalism.

Back to reading. More anon.

Articles by R. R. Reno


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