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Jewish World Review May 22, 2002 / 11 Sivan, 5762

Ralph R. Reiland

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Consumer Reports


The economics of terrorism:
When class envy leads to hate


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- David Brooks, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, calls it "bourgeoisophobia" --- the hatred of success, most particularly the hatred of commercial achievement. In no small part, it's the kind of mindset that pushed Mohammed Atta to smash a passenger plane into the World Trade Center, the kind of resentment that drives the Arab street to cheer when a 10-year-old blows himself up in a trendy Israeli discotheque.

Brooks points to the anti-bourgeois stance of the French intelligentsia in the 19th century: "Around 1830, a group of French artists and intellectuals looked around and noticed that people who were their spiritual inferiors were running the world. Suddenly a large crowd of merchants, managers and traders were making lots of money, living in the big houses, and holding the key posts" --- not unlike the "traders" at the World Trade Center, "running the world," people judged by Mr. Atta to be his "spiritual inferiors."

These 19th century self-made merchants, lacking the pedigree and high style of the European aristocracy, were viewed by the French intelligentsia as "vulgar materialists," writes Brooks, "who half the time failed even to acknowledge their moral and spiritual inferiority to the artists and intellectuals."

This new entrepreneurial class, in short, was too rich, too unlearned, too guiltless for the sensibilities of men like French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), of "Madame Bovary" fame, a portrayal of the alleged immorality of provincial bourgeois life. The hatred of the bourgeoisie, wrote Flaubert, "is the beginning of all virtue." He signed his letters "Bourgeoisophobus" to show how much he despised "stupid grocers and their ilk."

It was, of course, "stupid grocers" who provided Flaubert with the freedom to write and sneer rather than plant and harvest. Nevertheless, what outraged the intelligentsia, says Brooks, was their belief that it was the "very mediocrity" of the merchants that accounted for their success: "Through some screw-up in the great scheme of the universe, their narrow-minded greed had brought them vast wealth, unstoppable power, and growing social prestige."

In that anti-capitalist view of things, I suppose I should make more money writing this column than the owners of Foodland. Clearly, that's a formula for an oversupply of columnists and mass starvation, exactly what's been delivered time and again whenever an anti-capitalist intelligentsia has grabbed the reins of power.

Ludwig von Mises, 30 years ago, made much the same argument as Brooks in his book The Anti-Capitalist Mentality: "Many people, and especially intellectuals, passionately loathe capitalism. In a society based on caste and status, the individual can ascribe adverse fate to conditions beyond his control. It is quite another thing under capitalism. Here everybody's station in life depends on his doing. The profit system makes those men prosper who have succeeded in filling the wants of the people in the best way."

What makes a man rich in capitalism is "not the evaluation of his contribution from any 'absolute' principle of justice," wrote Mises, "but the evaluation on the part of his fellow men who exclusively apply the yardstick of their personal wants, desires and ends." In other words, the market decides, not any academic judgments.

The loathing of capitalism exists, Mises maintained, because it's a system where differences in material welfare are primarily the result of differences in private initiative: "Everybody knows very well that there are people like himself who succeeded where he himself failed. Everybody knows that many of those he envies are self-made men who started from the same point from which he himself started. Everybody is aware of his own defeat."

Similarly, every Arab country is aware that Israel has succeeded where they have failed. Every Arab country is aware that the words of Bernard Lewis, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, are accurate: "By all standards of the modern world --- economic development, literacy, scientific achievement --- Muslim civilization, once a mighty enterprise, has fallen low."

In terms of living standards, for instance, the average per capita income in the Arab countries is less than one-fourth that of Israel, i.e., $3,700 versus $18,000, this despite the fact that the Arab states have the world's richest oil resources.

It's the same with the Arab attacks against Israel. With combined populations and territories, respectively, some 50 and 650 times larger than Israel, the Arab nations launched four wars, in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. Each time, Israel won.

The psychological consequences of these failures? Again, Mises provides an insight into the feelings of those who don't make the grade: "In order to console himself and to restore his self-assertion, such a man is in search of a scapegoat. He tries to persuade himself that he failed through no fault of his own. He was too decent to resort to the base tricks to which his successful rivals owe their ascendancy. The nefarious social order does not accord the prizes to the most meritorious men; it crowns the dishonest unscrupulous scoundrel, the swindler, the exploiter, the 'rugged individualist.'"

Within this scapegoat paradigm, it's the Jews who are to blame for Arab misery, America that's to blame for the decline of Muslim civilization. From there, it's a short step to flying a passenger jet into a skyscraper, a short step to tying explosives around a 10-year-old.



Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University and a Pittsburgh restaurateur. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Ralph R. Reiland