THE NATURE AND LOGIC OF CAPITALISM. By Robert L. Heilbroner. Norton. 225 pp. $15.95.
ON THE BACK JACKET of this splendid book Irving Howe says of Robert Heilbroner that he is "one of the two or three most perceptive, original and lucid social analysts in the United States." It is a statement with which I agree. He then describes the book as "pleasurably readable," which as most people would understand those words it assuredly is not. It is a book that makes no concessions to the reader; it must be read with the greatest attention and then maybe read again. Only then will it yield its full value, which, I am confident in saying, is very great.
This is an essay on contemporary capitalism and is deeply dependent on the best of past writing from Hobbes on through numerous contemporary scholilbroner's central framework is the capitalist process as first characterized by Marx -- the prodigiously motivated movement of money into goods, back into money, and on into goods, and thereafter ad infinitum. He examines the forces that empower this process and goes on to identify the rewards in prestige and authority that go with wealth. Then he considers the relation between what he calls the "regime of capital" and that of the state, the ideology of capitalism, the changing sources of its great waves of development in the last two centuries and briefly, and with an engaging lack of certainty, the prospect.
Such a sketch does not tell of the rich flow of comment and insight that Heilbroner offers and which indeed, is his trademark. In this book he is at his best as he considers the highly complementary and, at the same time, deeply tense relationship between the regime of capital and the government. It is, he observes, "a profound mistake to conceive of capitalism as being in essence a 'private' economic system. What the economic realm can do, the government is generally enjoined from doing. That which business cannot do, but requires to be done, becomes the business of the public sector . . . Remove the regime of capital and the state would remain . . . remove the state and the regime of capital would not last a day."
COMING TO the ideology of capitalism, he gives brief shrift to deliberate or contrived inculcation or propaganda; what counts is the belief that the economic and social context requires and instills. What Ronald Reagan and Donald Regan, with varying indignation and eloquence, see as economic and social truth is what is given them by the system to believe. So also and more so Professor Arthur Laffer and Dr. Charles Murray.
One of the most notable achievements of the contextual belief is the elimination of value judgments. "The de-moralization of economic activity (makes) . . . meaningless such questions as: Which of two equally profitable undertakings is the better? Can one call wasteful any undertaking that returns a satisfactory profit? . . . Thus a kind of moral pardon is applied to all licit activities of the capital-accumulating sector, although in the so-called public sector, where the absorption of losses rather than the accumulation of capital takes place, no such justification is available, so that moral obloquy and standards are constantly brought to bear."
It should not be supposed that Heilbroner is an especially astringent critic of the system. He explores, reflects and comments on the absurdities of the motivated belief but is not especially aroused. He is at pains to note that the regime of capital allows of more liberty than the "tributary" systems that preceded it. Indeed, because of what he calls, somewhat awkwardly, the "commodification" of ideas -- their reduction to the role of a saleable commodity -- capitalism cannot resist marketing ideas, such as those of Heilbroner himself, that are eminently inconvenient for, or adverse to, its deeply institutionalized ideology.
I am sorry that Heilbroner did not muse more on one of the more compellng of the modern developments of capitalism -- its evolution into a structure of bureaucratic authority in which, typically, the owners of capital have no power and in which there has been a notable convergence with the bureaucratic aparatus of the state. The emphasis in so much contemporary business rhetoric on the innovating entrepreneur is really a kind of nostalgic requiem for a system that has been largely replaced by the great faceless structures of the modern corporation and conglomerate. Perhaps Heilbroner's view of capitalism is, itself, a trifle nostalgic.
But this is a minor complaint. I read economic books these days with every expectation of boredom -- of being told in ineffable detail what I already believe or have already declined to believe. Not this.