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Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery [Kindle Edition]

John Mueller
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Democracy is overrated. Capitalism, on the other hand, doesn't get enough credit. In this provocative and engaging book, John Mueller argues that these mismatches between image and reality create significant political and economic problems--inspiring instability, inefficiency, and widespread cynicism. We would be far better off, he writes, if we recognized that neither system is ideal or disastrous and accepted instead the humdrum truth that both are "pretty good." And, to Mueller, that means good enough. He declares that what is true of Garrison Keillor's fictional store "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery" is also true of democracy and capitalism: if you can't get what you want there, "you can probably get along without it."

Mueller begins by noting that capitalism is commonly thought to celebrate greed and to require discourtesy, deceit, and callousness. However, with examples that range from car dealerships and corporate boardrooms to the shop of an eighteenth-century silk merchant, Mueller shows that capitalism in fact tends to reward behavior that is honest, fair, civil, and compassionate. He argues that this gap between image and reality hampers economic development by encouraging people to behave dishonestly, unfairly, and discourteously to try to get ahead and to neglect the virtuous behavior that is an important source of efficiency and gain.

The problem with democracy's image, by contrast, is that our expectations are too high. We are too often led by theorists, reformers, and romantics to believe that democracy should consist of egalitarianism and avid civic participation. In fact, democracy will always be chaotic, unequal, and marked by apathy. It offers reasonable freedom and security, but not political paradise. To idealize democracy, Mueller writes, is to undermine it, since the inevitable contrast with reality creates public cynicism and can hamper democracy's growth and development.

Mueller presents these arguments with sophistication, wit, and erudition. He combines mastery of current political and economic literature with references to figures ranging from Plato to P. T. Barnum, from Immanuel Kant to Ronald Reagan, from Shakespeare to Frank Capra. Broad in scope and rich in detail, the book will provoke debate among economists, political scientists, and anyone interested in the problems (or non-problems) of modern democracy and capitalism.


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"If you can't get it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it" is the motto of the mom-and-pop retailer in Garrison Keillor's fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minn. It's a slogan that serves Mueller, a University of Rochester political science professor, as an adroit summation of both capitalism and democracy. Both are imperfect systems, according to Mueller. Capitalism is driven by selfish acquisitiveness and provides no guarantees of economic security; democracy is preferable to other forms of government but is dominated by special interests and, as a result, is "unlikely ever to achieve orderly deliberation, political equality, or wide and enlightened participation by the mass of the public." Both concepts suffer from serious image problems, according to Mueller. Capitalism gets a bad rap from Hollywood, the church and intellectuals who decry the rapaciousness of the business world; in fact, capitalism actually rewards such virtues as honesty, fairness and civility, he writes. Democracy, on the other hand, is idealized and can never foster the orderly, fair society to which its advocates aspire. Mueller is an entertaining guide through economic and political history, using references to Shakespeare, Adam Smith, Hume, Mencken and many more writers to produce deft explanations of complex ideas. One may question the wisdom of his faith in the free market, or in the fairness and civility of big corporations that, these days, are gradually devouring the Ralph's Groceries of the world. But it's hard not to find much to like in a brash manifesto that proudly extols the virtues, as Mueller puts it, of "the pretty good over the ideal." (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The thesis behind Mueller's cleverly worded title is that capitalism gets terrible press (for promoting greed and deceit) while democracy's is na?vely positive and uncritical (it can never be as egalitarian and participatory as it claims). Mueller (political science, Univ. of Rochester) feels that Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, from Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake WobegonAthe motto is, "If you can't get it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it"Ais a more realistic model for approaching the two entities. Mueller argues that our unrealistic images of capitalism and democracy prevent us from claiming the full benefit of each. Throughout, he is careful to qualify rather than make bold declarative statements that would be damned by exceptions. Many thought-provoking ideas are packed into this nuanced work, and Mueller's case is strong and well documented. The sophisticated argument, however, will limit its value to academic collections or public libraries where there is an active interest in political science.APatrick J. Brunet, Western Wisconsin Technical Coll. Lib., La Crosse
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2924 KB
  • Print Length: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (August 31, 1999)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003Z0BJPC
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,051,204 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A challenging look at capitalism and democarcy October 11, 2000
Format:Hardcover
Although capitalism and democracy are regarded by many as the twin engines propelling the United States into its present position of world leadership, discussions of what these institutions mean for Amercians in practical, everyday terms are exceedingly rare. John Mueller, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, has taken a giant step toward examining the reality of capitalism and democracy...As he puts it, capitalism and democracy consistently fall short of the images and ideas conveyed by theorists and pundits.
Mueller is convinced that the free-market economy has proven its value. Government intervention cannot instill the values essential to successful enterprise, and over the long run it undercuts them...In any event, economic inequality is inevitable, whatever the economic system in place, and capitalism has the advantage over other systems of providing greater prosperity and rewarding moral behavior...
Whereas Mueller focuses on the negative images frequently associated with capitalism, his discussion of democracy concentrates on the unattainable ideal by which it is often judged...Especially important from Mueller's perspective is recognition of the fact that special interests and inequality are inherent in democratic systems...
Democracy may be grubby, chaotic, and constantly compromising, but it soundly beats any of the alternatives. Mueller concedes that authoritarian forms of government may occasionally produce great leaders, but he argues that in no nation have such leaders existed for any length of time. Democracy constantly reevaluates its leaders and provides the means for replacing them, and it has consistently demonstrated a capacity to thrive even with large amounts of citizen apathy, cynicism, and even ignorance...
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book should be in every poly sci classroom June 30, 2000
Format:Hardcover
If a friend told me that he was flying to a deserted island in the South Pacific to start a new country, first I would tell him he was crazy. Next, I would give him this book, insist that he read it, and use it as a blueprint for a successful society. Mr. Mueller's book is an excellent defense of both capitalism and democracy, the twin pillars of our American society. The author points out that while neither system is perfect, both are superior to any other economic method or political institution. His book is filled with interesting facts and fascinating insights. For example, Mr. Mueller insists that capitalism, far from extinguishing virtue, actually encourages it. This is because businessmen who treat their customers and co-workers with fairness and compassion have an economic advantage over their brooding colleagues. This seems counterintuitive but is born out by evidence. Service was especially poor and rude in former communist countries. Today, American companies from McDonald's to K-Mart, much maligned by the press, are teaching benevolent business practices to Third World nations from Africa to the Orient. Mr. Mueller also makes the interesting point that economics is approaching a level of sophistication similar to medicine at the turn of the twentieth century. Today, for the first time ever, economists can offer truly effective remedies for policy makers. Such a development, if true, promises an era of truly spectacular growth. The author also makes the sobering point that capitalism is a poor tonic for increasing personal happiness. Money has never substituted for family, faith, and meaningful work. Nor will it in the future. When it comes to democracy, Mr. Mueller believes that we expect too much from our political process. Read more ›
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars worth reading, but not what you think November 9, 2009
Format:Paperback
I thought this was another book along the lines of "Freakonomics," "Naked Economics," or "Predictably Irrational," where the goal was to showcase a slew of counter-intuitive insights from economics and psychology -- the "Economics Can Be Fun" genre, if you will.

Not so. Though I got a lot out of this book, and parts of it made me think, on the whole I would characterize it as stuffy and uncomfortably theoretical.

It's philosophy, really. It's really a survey of how two ideas -- capitalism and democracy -- have been viewed over the years. It examines the ways in which, to paraphrase the first line of the book, capitalism has gotten a worse rap than it deserves, while democracy has gotten a better one than it deserves. (At the hands of poets, historians, novelists, politicians, etc.) It's almost literary history.

So a lukewarm recommendation for this one. There were parts that made me think, but now that I think about it, even those parts were really the author's quoting somebody else's ideas (quite a lot of this here), than coming up with anything original. On the whole, I'd say it's a lot less fun than the groovy cover and loony title seem to promise.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A seminal book, best in class January 5, 2008
By Knoebel
Format:Paperback
Prof.Mueller tries to correct several misconceptions about capitalism and democracy.
a) Quite contrary to popular beliefs and the propaganda from a deafening chorus of anticapitalist voices Prof.Mueller posits, that capitalism tends to reward positive ethical behavior. "Nice guys come out first" .
b) For a variety of reasons this simple truth became obscured and capitalism tends to be maligned and is believed to be governed by the opposite priciples of theft, deception and moral depravity.
Reading Prof.Mueller`s book I remembered the opening line of a letter, Karl Marx wrote 1872 in reply to an article in a German business paper ("Concordia"). Summarily Marx adressed producers ("Fabrikanten") as experts in counterfeiting their merchandise.
This contrasts eerily with research findings, Prof.Mueller cites, which attest English and German producers a marked shift towards ethical behaviour during the 19.th century!
c) Following Prof.Mueller, democracy may be described to be the rule of a minority with acquiescence of the majority. And this minority rule with majority asquiescence happens to be not a defect but a
strongpoint. There may even be democracy without elections, because not the ballot box is to be considered the heart of a democratic government but the responsiveness towards special interests from society, which must be given the guarantee of peaceful pursuit against those in power.
Following the author`s very sensible train of thoughts I started wondering, wether we could call the period of Kaiserreich" in German history 1870 to 1914 a democratic period and there may be room for a democratic development in China - even without challenging the one-party rule.
I can gladly label Prof.Mueller`s book the most important title about capitalism and democracy I ever read. This is a seminal book for many years to come. I am very fortunate, to have come across it! Thank you indeed, John Mueller!
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