If it were to fall upon me to rename Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I would call it Bland New World. My choice might seem strange since it is so far removed from the purely economic considerations that dominate the debate on this book. However, it does express the worldview found throughout its 700 pages.
Far be it from me to say that economic considerations are not important in the present debate…but life is not all economics.
And that is what is wrong with Piketty’s massive tome. His world is a materialistic and secular world where happiness is measured by equality of per capita income, Facebook friends and iPhone apps. It is devoid of any real spiritual aspirations. Rather, his is an avowed egalitarian utopia that proposes a new nanny-like social state supported by a tax-burdened meritocracy. It is incredibly bland.
It is bland because Piketty does not really understand equality. He is confused by the fact that all men are equal by nature and yet unequal in their abilities and characteristics. Things like virtue, talent, beauty, strength, family and tradition naturally generate a wide range of inequalities—including economic inequalities—that are just and according to the order of the universe.
To Piketty, these inequalities are unjust and must be leveled out. He fails to consider that when we act in sync with our nature, virtue and reason, these inequalities generate a rich, exuberant and immense variety of possible human actions from which spring forth unique systems of art, styles of life, socio-political institutions, and economic models. These inequalities make life supremely interesting and “unbland.”
But building such a vibrant and virtuous culture naturally presupposes accumulation, even great accumulation, of wealth—and this is something good. If we want true prosperity, we should encourage, not suppress, the full spectrum of development at all income levels. However, Piketty’s rigid and soulless formulas and his one-tax-fits-all-rich-people solutions propose precisely the contrary.
Another part of the work’s blandness consists in the fact that it is so hopelessly outdated. The author clings obsessively to the old liberal assumptions that self-interest is the sole motivation for the actions of men. One can almost imagine him in a faded tricolor cap shouting out adapted slogans from the French Revolution or propagating the hackneyed ideas from the Enlightenment at an ancient salon.
His perspective cannot conceive of anything but a purely materialistic world, officially stripped of its spiritual elements. Self-interest drives everything. As Irving Kristol once stated, from such a world we can expect “no high nobility of purpose, no selfless devotion to transcendental ends, no awe-inspiring heroism.”1
When life consists of maximizing our every material comfort and minimizing every physical suffering, it is indeed a bland world where we are not allowed to dream beyond progressive tax rates or pension fund liabilities.
Piketty and his liberal friends fail to realize that there is something beyond self-interest that motivates us to act. There is the love of God, honor and country, which one often must defend at great costs. There is the quest for that which is good, true and beautiful that inspires so many of the arts. There are those sublime acts of self-denial that are the stuff from which heroes and saints are made. All of these selfless acts tower above mere self-interest.
However, these things too require accumulated wealth so that we might better pursue marvelous deeds and dreams. These are tremendously powerful and attractive aspirations that are good and virtuous. Indeed, from the virtue of fortitude comes magnanimity, which is the virtue that inclines one to perform great and splendid acts worthy of honor. Also part of fortitude is the virtue of magnificence which leads one to undertake splendid and great projects without being discouraged by their magnitude, difficulty, or expense. These are companion virtues that are incompatible with self-centered mediocrity and presuppose noble and lofty souls.
I suppose what I want to say is that there is nothing sublime about Piketty’s new world order. As the author of the book, Return to Order, that addresses this sublime and spiritual side of economy, I was astonished to find a book that so concisely demonstrates a contrary thesis. That is why I suggest Bland New World as one possible title, but I fear it hides the dangers contained in the book. Perhaps Anti-Return to Order might be better.
1 Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 178.