[This review was published in The American Conservative on November 18, 2002.  The version here is as it was originally written.  The review as published omitted an important paragraph giving Murphey’s analysis.]


Book Review  


Wealth and Democracy

Kevin Phillips

New York: Broadway Books, 2002 


            This is the tenth book by Kevin Phillips, who is well known to most readers as the author of The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) and The Politics of Rich and Poor (1990).  He was a leading member of the Nixon campaign team in 1968 as its chief analyst of political and voting patterns.  Over the years, he has been an articulate commentator on social, political and economic issues.

            Wealth and Democracy can be seen as a follow-up book on his 1990 discussion of the rich and poor – but not as a mere update, because it extends its vision to cover a number of other facets, including the disparities of wealth in American economic history from the 1790s to the present.

            Its title suggests that it is an exploration of "democracy" as affected by polarities of wealth and income, but actually Phillips does little to come to grips with the specifics of how wealth has impacted on American culture or politics.  For example, there is no discussion in depth of the political trajectory and influence of the Kennedy family, or of the Adamses, Lodges or Rockefellers, although all of these are named in one connection or another.

            The book, however, has considerable substance and extensive factual detail about several themes that are interesting in themselves:

            .  Leading among these, perhaps, is his phase theory about major economic powers.  "The similar trajectories of the previous leading economic powers present a powerful argument for stages of development that the U.S. is itself following."  The phases can be seen in the rise and fall of sixteenth century Spain, seventeenth century Holland, and nineteenth century Britain.  In the United States and the others, Phillips sees a progression from initial vitality and commercial expansion to erosion and weakness, accompanied by a "resting on ones laurels" (my phrase) during a period of economic, ideological and military triumphalism.  He especially describes this latter phase, in which each society has lived off its accumulated strengths, has transferred capital and technology to others, has moved strongly into finance rather than continuing with actual production, has seen the rise of powerful competing economies, and has experienced an ascendancy of the rentier and conspicuously rich while at the same time unemployment has risen and the workforce has become sullen. 

            The concern, of course, is that the United States is in its terminal phase as a leading economic power.  Readers are advised, however, to keep in mind the speculative nature of such historical analogies.  The idea that "financialization" leads to vulnerability and decline may well be true, but Phillips himself notes that it was actually an exhausting war that brought Spain, Holland and Britain off their respective pinnacles.  This mixes and confuses the causal message.  The present-day United States, involved in a "war against terror" and extended throughout the world in a melioristic interventionism, may well become involved in exhausting warfare, completing the analogy.  But that remains to be seen.  The United States' economic progression is something that anyone attentive to American well-being will want to follow closely, however; and Phillips' book gives much to ponder.

            . Another theme (and arguably his principal one) is the polarization of wealth and income, which he traces in its ebb and (occasional) flow from 1790 to the present. His comparison is especially of the "top 1%" with a variety of segments of the remainder of the population.  Most pertinent to us today is that he sees an extraordinary expansion of wealth by the top few in the 1980s and 1990s, while there has been "a relative stagnation of the middle class and a decline in the net worths of the bottom 60 percent of Americans."  The quality of life of the average American, he says, has declined dramatically, with wives working to help maintain family income, longer working hours, decreasing job benefits, longer commutes, and a shift to temporary and parttime employment.

            This is a theme the American Left has stressed in a number of books during recent decades.  The hue-and-cry about the polarization became muted during the boom psychology of the late 1990s (reenforced, almost certainly, by an unwillingness of the Left to attack while Clinton was president).  Phillips' contribution to what the Left has already said is largely to bring the data up to date.

            The many on the Right whose thought centers on the purist forms of libertarian and free-market ideology will consider the subject of economic polarity a "non-issue."  Wealth is the hallmark of energy, ability and entrepreneurial insight – and there is no such thing as "too much" success.  Those who do not fare as well are perverse if they see the cause of their failure in the achievements of the rich.

            Others on the Right, however, will recall how classical liberalism and its predecessors for several centuries fought against the rigidities of landed aristocracy and of social-political hierarchy in the progression toward individual liberty, a market economy, and representative institutions.  Great wealth today is not primarily "landed," but those who see a free society from a holistic or systems approach, concerning themselves with everything that is needed to make a free society thrive, will look back to that struggle against aristocracy and find much to be concerned about.  If the disparity between rich and poor were not becoming vast, and if the dynamics of technology and globalization were not rapidly putting into question the predominance of a broad middle class, it would be acceptable to write off the Left's (and Phillips') observations as "the usual carping criticism of a market economy typical of the history of socialist thought."  All "conservatives" today, however, must ask themselves whether it is wise to do that, precisely from the point of view of the values and institutions they themselves hold most dear.  

            .  A third theme of Wealth and Democracy is that government has at all times played a substantial role in the economy and in the creation of wealth.  This means that laissez-faire has not been the characteristic feature in American reality.

            .  This relates closely to Phillips' rejection of pure free-market ideology, which he sees as "market idolatry and economic Darwinism."  He would assign the market an essential but subordinate role: "markets must be reestablished as adjuncts, not criteria, of democracy and representative government."

            Again, we see that the American Right will disagree within itself over this.  The conservatism of Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver and their successors, for example, has never been centered on market theory – and has, in fact, opposed much of the vision of a commercial civilization.  This reviewer, on the other hand, has been a classical liberal all his life; but this hasn't kept him from thinking it unfortunate that classical liberalism in the nineteenth century permitted itself to be primarily an economic doctrine (in the form of "classical" and "neo-classical economics") rather than a completely elaborated theory of civilization.  He has considered it even more unfortunate that classical liberals in the twentieth century, pushed off onto an ideological margin, have become increasingly doctrinaire and ideologically circular, leading to a reductionist philosophy that leaves much out of account.  This reviewer would go much further than Phillips, in fact, in emphasizing the prospective crisis faced by capitalism as technology and global markets advance and undercut the hundreds of millions of people who inevitably will not and cannot have the skills that will be demanded.

            If there is something to this (and many deny that there is), those who wish to conserve the institutions and values of a free society will have much radical thinking to do in the years ahead.  And they will face this challenge in a context where the world, and even the American population, is little inclined to care about their thinking one way or the other.

            If we are to be critical of Wealth and Democracy in any fundamental sense, it should be for what the book does not explore.  Phillips expresses apprehension over polarization and American economic decline, but it seems to this reviewer that that is just one of at least four major challenges to American success, and even America's existence (in anything like the form we have known it).  The other three challenges are: the United States' post-1898 self-assigned mission to intervene throughout the world for the world's improvement, which (exclusive of the imperative to fight messianic totalitarian ideologies) is an impossible and quixotic task; the willingness of America's and Europe's "ruling class" (to use Sam Francis' term for it) to flood the West with Third World immigrants, changing forever the flavor and content of our societies; and the lack of will on the part of the American people to stand up in the "culture war" that is carried on relentlessly against them by the Left and the countless trucklers who conform themselves to it.

            All books cannot address all subjects, however; and it is perhaps not to be expected that a given book do more than present its portion of the truth.  Phillips' book does a provocative and informative job on the part that it addresses.

                                                                                                                                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey