Show Me Capitalism

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

En route to other things, I learned something interesting about the urban development of St. Louis, in my grandmother's home state of Missouri, that fellow advocates of capitalism could profit from: It is dotted with small enclaves called "private places." Upon encountering this odd term, I naturally looked it up, and learned the following.

A private place is a self-governing enclave whose common areas (e.g. streets) are owned by the residents, and whose services are provided by the private sector.

The urban history of St. Louis, Missouri is significant in the development of private places. Most were laid out by Prussian-born surveyor and planner Julius Pitzman, who conceived the idea around 1868 as a way for residential landowners to control real estate speculation and maintain property standards, in an era before the protections [sic] of zoning. Pitzman designed 47 of these developments over a 50-year period.


Many of these developments are well-preserved and still gated, patrolled, and functioning as private enclaves. [hyperlinks and footnotes omitted]
The short Wikipedia entry on private places is interesting in itself, but it also cites a thought-provoking reference I plan to look at more closely at some point: David T. Beito's "From Privies to Boulevards: The Private Supply of Infrastructure in the United States during the Nineteenth Century," which appears as a chapter in Development by Consent: The Voluntary Supply of Public Goods and Services.

The Amazon synopsis of the book reads as follows:
This book explores how myriad goods and services -- among them the generation and delivery of electricity, building and maintenance of roads, sewage and refuse disposal, water delivery, education, and transportation -- have been voluntarily supplied by individuals and groups in the absence of government mandates or sanctions. A recollection of the voluntary habit that predominated in nineteenth-century America stands in marked contrast to the expansive contemporary role of government in the United States and other countries, both industrialized and developing. Many additional examples conjoin in this volume to provide both leaders and citizens of debt-ridden governments with case experience of nongovernment alternatives for supplying sorely needed goods and services.

An implication of the evidence in this volume is that the development of any country can occur as a result of expanding the consenting actions of its citizens -- in the absence of a growing government, or in spite of it. Poorer countries are most likely to benefit from acting on the lessons of this book; voluntary means for meeting people's demands are even more appropriate where resources are less abundant. All countries can benefit from prohibiting the additional expense of having government do what its citizens would do otherwise. Richer countries may be able to afford the excess burden (or deadweight loss) that is incurred when government supplants private endeavors with its own. But in poorer countries, such additional cost is truly waste, and may very well preclude development. Better the voluntary alternatives of this book, and development by consent.
And here's the opening paragraph of the chapter on private places:
During the late 1970s, the term privatization first came into common currency to describe a process which was then emerging. Whether or not the term itself is of recent origin, there is no doubt that the reality of privatization has deep historical roots. Throughout the nineteenth century, the private sector played a major (often dominant) role in nearly every imaginable service now monopolized by government.
Regulars here, and anyone who has been influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand, will already appreciate the enormity of the task of effectively promoting capitalism. The fundamental task of such cultural activism is, if not to promote egoism and capitalism, to at least cause many more people to question common assumptions regarding the propriety and practicality of altruism and collectivism.

Needless to say, concrete examples of the efficacy of capitalism, often lacking in today's cultural and political context, are always helpful. It looks like I have bumped into a very useful resource indeed!

-- CAV

----- In Other News -----

Some time back, I blogged John Swansburg's "I Hate My iPad." I see that he eventually followed up with some curated reader responses, pro and con, and some additional commentary of his own. (He still hates his.) I very much like the email he quotes at the end of the second article.

Not your patriarch's Koran reading group... Amy Peikoff is starting a Koran reading group. I won't be participating, but the following line from the announcement made me smile: "We will read approximately 20 pages of the Koran per week, along with the corresponding commentary published by Robert Spencer. " I see that the link takes me to a series called, "Blogging the Koran."

This is sad. If what this young writer says is true about her upbringing, I don't blame her one bit for rejecting "objectivism." (Compare her account of her upbringing to the answer Leonard Peikoff gives to the following question: "How do you explain the concepts of 'religion' and 'God' to pre-school-aged children?") The facts that the article blatantly misrepresents Objectivism and incorrectly refers to it with a common noun speak ill of the editorial staff of Salon in more than one respect.

If you didn't get enough to think about here, Myrhaf has just posted the fifth installment of his "Cavalcade of Links" series.


: Corrected "The Atlantic" to "Salon."


narayan said...

I think you meant the editorial staff of Salon, not the Atlantic.

It really is a travesty that Ms Bereznak thinks she was brought up by an Objectivist.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for the correction.

dismuke said...

Regarding the Alyssa Bereznak Salon article, anyone who has participated in Objectivist related functions or online communities has run into certain types of individuals who simply aren't capable of grasping the philosophy beyond a superficial, concrete bound level and end up merely regurgitating it and regarding it as some sort of dogma. And this can result in very bizarre behavior on the part of such people. Most such people quickly abandon the philosophy or become detractors equating the philosophy with their own perversion of it. But some, unfortunately, hang around and continue to regard themselves as Objectivists.

This is certainly not unique to Objectivism. For example, you will find individuals with what is essentially a cult like dogmatic mindset attach themselves to various dietary movements which may be otherwise perfectly well intentioned, to various self-help authors and movements which might otherwise have valid things to say, etc. There are a lot of people in this world who desperately seek a "rules book" and a prepackaged "lifestyle" that they can just immerse themselves into and follow in order to give their empty lives some sort of meaning and grounding. Most people seeking this turn to religion. But there are many who are turned off by religion for various reasons who instead seek something secular/non supernatural to fill the same void that religion fills for others.

I certainly sympathize with anybody who has had Objectivism essentially shoved down their throats - and anyone who does such shoving clearly does not grasp the philosophy no matter who much of it they might be able to regurgitate.

That said, I do question the timing of the article. Let's see.... Later this week the Atlas Shrugged movie is schedule to be released in theaters nationwide. Based on what little I have heard about it, the movie sounds like it is not going to be as bad as many, including myself, feared it might be. Regardless, the publicity for the movie is gaining momentum and the number of theaters it is going to be in has been expanded due to popular demand. It is being heavily promoted by the Tea Party and by many prominent conservative talk shows.

If the movie is even a shadow of the book, it and its timing will be devastating for the Left because Rand exposes the Left's true essence in ways that nobody else in our culture does. My guess is many on the left are apprehensive about the movie and its potential success. How does the Left answer Ayn Rand? The only tool the Left has and has ever had to answer ANY of its critics is sneers, insults and distortions. And that is the only tool it will have at its disposal to attack Ayn Rand.

Look for more articles along these lines - and far, far worse ones - in the weeks and months ahead.

Gus Van Horn said...

"I certainly sympathize with anybody who has had Objectivism essentially shoved down their throats - and anyone who does such shoving clearly does not grasp the philosophy no matter who much of it they might be able to regurgitate."

As do I. A past acquaintance of mine was forced to read Atlas Shrugged while very sick and in bed with the flu by her father, a self-proclaimed "Objectivist," who understood self-interest so thoroughly that he'd drive the family around in a car while stoned out of his mind.

She nevertheless turned out to be fairly rational, but wouldn't call herself an Objectivist.

Regarding those who shove things down other people's throats and those who attempt to fill their empty lives with ritual, I have often observed that those who do one tend to do the other.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you point to the Salon article by Alyssa Bereznak. I agree with your comments, but only to the extent that her article is in fact factually correct. Several details strike me as dubious, such as a 14-year-old who from the content of her article clearly does not understand Objectivism well enough to be admitted to OAC nonetheless taking on-line classes from ARI (!?!): "While other kids my age were going to Bible study, I took evening classes from the institute via phone. (I half-listened while clicking through lolcat photos.)" Other dubieties have been pointed out in the comments at Salon and on On balance I consider Bereznak's article a hit piece whose authenticity I seriously question--instead of "Real Families," I lean toward "Fake Personas."

Gus Van Horn said...

If the bit about taking classes from ARI was specifically about OAC, it escaped me several days ago when I read the article. THAT would be incredible. On the other hand, I have no idea off-hand, one way or the other about whether ARI has offered other kinds of teleclasses in the past.

The "Bush is a Genius," though, was almost certainly a fabrication, unless you count TIA as an Objectivist newsletter -- but even then, it's far-fetched.

That said, I would not be terribly surprised to learn that the article is, in fact, fictional. Nevertheless, to the extent that it deserves notice at all, I think the most important fallacy within to refute is this: that it correctly represents the theory or proper practice of Objectivism.

C. August said...

I printed out and read David T. Beito's "From Privies to Boulevards." It was absolutely fascinating. It called to mind the work Ray Niles and ... blanking on his name... did in The Objective Standard on electric utilities and privatizing waterways, respectively.

I'm thinking of buying the whole volume that Beito's chapter was in on the chance that it's even partially as good.

Beito mentioned numerous times that new examinations of the historical record have raised important questions and areas that need to be researched, specifically in terms of privately run services that everyone assumes have to be government-run. Since he wrote that in the early 90's, I wonder if any of that research has been done. I'll report back if I find anything out.

Gus Van Horn said...


I suspect that the "other guy" you're blanking out on might be Brian Phillips. He has written some really good stuff on subjects like this.

Yes. I read that chapter and also plan to obtain that book. (But report away: Who knows when I'll get to that book?)

Most fascinatingly, the chapter, although cited in Wikipedia, describes an argument as to the origin of private places in St. Louis that the encyclopedia didn't even bring up: That they arose in response to government incompetence at providing the services.

I'm glad you enjoyed that chapter as much as I did!


C. August said...

Looks like there is a later collection of essays (2002) that covers some of the same ground but may go into more detail on a range of similar topics: The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society. Beito is one of the contributors.

This review of the book at makes it sound worth checking out.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, sir, for the information.