Cover image for Capitalism, democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery
Capitalism, democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery
Mueller, John E.
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xi, 335 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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HB501 .M83 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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.

Author Notes

John Mueller is Professor of Political Science at the University of Rochester. His previous books include War, Presidents, and Public Opinion , Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War , and Quiet Cataclysm: Reflections on the Recent Transformation of World Politics . He is a regular contributor to numerous academic journals and has written editorial page columns in The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , and The Los Angeles Times . Outside the field of political science, Mueller has written the prize-winning Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films (Knopf) and cowritten A Foggy Day , a musical presented at the Shaw Festival in Ontario.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Mueller is a political science professor at the University of Rochester who has varied interests. He has written books on how public opinion affects military policy, on the obsolescence of major war, and on the dance films of Fred Astaire. This new book is based on a simple assumption that likely will be challenged all along the political spectrum. Mueller asserts that capitalism is not nearly so bad as its critics claim and that we expect too much from democracy. Fans of Garrison Keillor will recognize Ralph's as the store where, if an item isn't stocked, you probably don't really need it. This is the analogy Mueller intends. Neither capitalism nor democracy is perfect, but both are "pretty good!" Mueller traces the development of democracy and capitalism worldwide during the past two centuries. Citing from an eclectic assortment of sources--his bibliography runs 25 pages--he explores and contrasts the strengths, shortcomings, and vagaries of capitalism and democracy, and analyzes the connections between the two philosophies. --David Rouse

Publisher's Weekly Review

"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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 WobegonÄthe motto is, "If you can't get it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it"Äis 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.ÄPatrick J. Brunet, Western Wisconsin Technical Coll. Lib., La Crosse (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Mueller (political science, Univ. of Rochester) argues that capitalism and democracy are "pretty good" and that we ought to be happier with this fact than we are. The problem lies less in the actual performance of capitalism and democracy than with the images and expectations that citizens have created for them. Democracy's public image is unrealistically good, so we are constantly finding fault with its performance in practice. Capitalism's image is perhaps unrealistically bad--it is nowhere near so evil in practice as its image might suggest. In practice, Mueller argues, capitalism and democracy are neither perfectly good nor hopelessly bad, they are merely "pretty good" and should be accepted on those terms as fairly effective social institutions. Judged by these same standards, this is a "pretty good" book--the thesis is interesting but not stunningly original. The book is written pretty well. The evidence and examples given are not bad either. The appendix, titled "An Inventory of Propositions," derived from the author's analysis, is actually very good and worth the consideration of anyone interested in these issues. Complete and useful bibliography. Upper-division undergraduate and above. M. Veseth; University of Puget Sound