THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS?
We have a form of capitalist theodicy that brooks no challenge
By Mark Kingwell
When the Dow Jones industrial average briefly topped the 10,000 mark last week, the market triumphalism reached a peak of self- congratulation only rarely seen, even on the confidence-fuelled streets of the Manhattan financial district. "There's a widespread belief," said Bill Meehan, chief market analyst with the New York brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald, "that we're in the best of all possible worlds."
Meehan probably didn't realize it, but he was unwittingly quoting the German philosopher G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716), whose doctrine of theodicy, or God's justice, is what originally gave us that strangely familiar expression of optimism. It's worth pausing to attend to the similarities in belief between the 18th-century philosophical rationalists and their 20th-century capitalist heirs, if only because apparently we have, as Harvey Cox points out in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly, finally succeeded in replacing God with The Market.
Leibniz's theodicy was based on a simple but powerful argument. First of all, he said, though there is only one actual world, there are many possible ones. (In the jargon of the trade, this position is known as modal realism.) Therefore it is metaphysically possible for the world to be other than it is: There are other options available, at least in theory. Because there are many possible worlds, in other words, it could be that the world we have is not the best one.
Yet this is not so. Because God created the world, and God is good, we can be confident this actual world is not just one of the possible ones, but the best of all possible ones. God would not -- could not -- do anything less than call into existence the best available option in the array. There may be wars, pestilence, cruelty, torture, and injustice, but we can remain supremely confident that things could not be any better. They could only be worse. Quod erat demonstrandum.
This argument struck many people, notably the satirist Voltaire, as patent nonsense, intellectually scandalous. Writing the proto-novel Candide (ironically subtitled Optimism), Voltaire's inspiration was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed thousands of innocents. He was likewise mindful of the territorial wars of the early 1700s, and the everyday suffering that was the lot of most people in his era. The anti-hero, young Candide, staggers through a horror-show gauntlet of suffering, only to be told at every moment by the eternal optimist Dr. Pangloss, a Leibnizian mouthpiece, that all is working out for the best.
In effect, Voltaire says, Leibniz's theodicy evades the challenge posed to God's goodness by the presence of evil. If God is perfect, that challenge goes, he must be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent; and yet there is evil in the world -- therefore one corner of the triangle of perfection must give. God is either deficient in knowledge, lacking in power, or (worst of all) limited in goodness. But here Leibniz replies: No no, the problem is with the world, not the God who created it.
It's a neat trick. And there's something increasingly familiar about that way of reasoning. Meehan says, based on high growth rates and low inflation, that things have never been better -- and implies that they cannot be better. Leave aside for the moment concerns that the Dow is not indicative of the market at large, or worries that this climb may just herald a sharp future downturn. We now have a form of capitalist theodicy that, as much as Leibniz's, brooks no rational challenge. It's not a position, it's a religion. And by their arguments shall ye know them.
Thus, charges that a market-driven economy, even a wildly successful one, is indifferent to disparities in wealth are greeted with a chorus of incredulity. Indications of the evils of unbridled growth are waved away as lacking in sophistication or, worse, met with self-serving charges of hypocrisy -- as if pointing out that someone shops for clothing or earns a salary means any criticisms of capitalism are irrelevant. Any questioning of the point of all that economic growth, as in my last article on this page, is answered not by argument, but by a barrage of spluttering personal invective.
I don't mind: Being called a Marxist-Leninist makes me feel young again. It's like being asked for ID in a bar. But the clerics of the market, these latter-day apologists, should check their reasoning, and their references. Spying a Marxist plot in every point of dissent from the iron-clad orthodoxy of market liberalism is, in the merely literal sense, insane: It has no grip on consensual reality. As a general attitude, it's akin to seeing a devil under every pew or a demonic possession in every voicing of criticism.
The disturbing thing about the new theodicy, in short, is that it is just as self-protecting and blinkered as the old. It is wilfully blind, rationally evasive. To suggest that things could not be better, when most of the world lives in abject poverty; or that the market is always right, when it buys comfort only for the very few, is as blithe and Panglossian as saying that every single instance of pain and suffering is part of God's plan: More power to the righteous (now read rich).
Nobody I know, not even the sharpest critic of the current round of capitalist domination, is arguing that the market can or should be abolished. We're not trying to kill your God, and we're not pessimistic. We're simply trying to point out that, all rhetoric aside, things may not be as just as they could be. Why don't we start with that, and see where it gets us?
Mark Kingwell teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto. His latest book is Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac.