June 2003 -- Why is there no museum of capitalism?
There are museums of art, science, and natural history in major cities throughout the world. New York City alone has dozens of art museums, from the giant Metropolitan to the new Rubin Museum for Himalayan and Tibetan painting. There are museums of crafts, jewelry, costumes, rock 'n' roll, photography, sports, stamps, minerals, and religions, among others. Fort Worth, Texas, was recently appropriated $90,000 in federal money for its National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. In Southport, England, one can visit the British Lawnmower Museum and its collection of two hundred garden machines dating from 1830, including "lawnmowers of the rich and famous."
There are, in short, museums that allow us to study, contemplate, and celebrate the achievements of human beings in virtually every realm of civilized life. Except for the realm that makes all the others possible.
Many of the great museums were created with money from successful industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller and still rely on wealthy businessmen for large contributions. Wouldn't it be fitting to create a museum where the source of that wealth—the realm of production and trade—could be studied, contemplated, and celebrated?
The rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, with space reserved for museums, offers the perfect opportunity.
What the Museum Would Teach
I have visited many museums in many cities but never encountered a museum of commerce. Nor have I found any sign of one in any directory of museums. There are museums for specific industries, like railroads and textiles, and for specific kinds of technology, from steam engines to computers to space flight. Moreover, many business organizations have a hall of fame acknowledging business achievers in their region or industry.
The Museum of American Financial History, in John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Building near Wall Street, describes itself as "the nation's only independent public museum dedicated to celebrating the spirit of entrepreneurship and the democratic free market tradition which have made America the financial capital of the world." As its name implies, however, its focus is American business, specifically the financial industry. With its $1 million budget and one-room display area, it is dwarfed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which spends $130 million every year to exhibit the entire history of art worldwide.
At a cost of $250 million, an ambitious National Museum of Industrial History is currently being created in Bethlehem Steel's former Lehigh plant, north of Philadelphia. The museum is acquiring examples of working machinery from America's industrial past; it will sponsor educational programs and competitions for innovative new technology, among other projects.
But none of these captures what I have in mind: the domain of trade and production in the widest sense. That includes the economic aspects of commerce—money, markets, credit, profits, the division of labor. It includes the social institutions that make commerce possible, from private property to corporations. And it includes the history of trade, its ethos and moral status, and the intellectual debates about capitalism that have shaped our era.
Perhaps it will be said that museums are for things we can't see every day—great art, rare species, ancient artifacts—whereas commerce is the stuff of our ordinary working lives. But production and trade, no less than art or science, have a history and a pantheon of great achievements that stand out from the routine.
From the dawn of civilization, and indeed long before, trade has been a wellspring of human progress. At the earliest farming villages, dating from 6000 B.C. and before, archaeologists have found artifacts acquired by trade. When Sumerians invented writing sometime after 3500 B.C., the cuneiform marks in clay tablets that they used to represent words had already been employed for at least a thousand years to represent numbers. Early accountants used these marks to keep track of grain in storehouses, goods received in trade, and the like. The first written code of law, that of Hammurabi around 1700 B.C., dealt primarily with matters of property, contracts, and other commercial matters.
People flock to see exhibits on the great empires of the ancient world—Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome—which controlled much larger areas than does any nation in the region today. But the trade routes of the time, which created so much of those empires' wealth, far outran their reach. Amber, for example, was prized for jewelry throughout the Mediterranean world. It came from the North Sea, passing from trader to trader along the river valleys of barbarian Europe, and had done so for centuries before anyone in the civilized world knew its source, let alone controlled it. By the first century B.C., the Silk Road linked the great civilizations of the Mediterranean to China, passing knowledge and goods in both directions.
How difficult could it be to make this history concrete and vivid? The early clay tokens and tablets used for accounting, some dating back to 9500 B.C., have been found in profusion throughout the Near East. Trading routes have been traced from the earliest times and could easily be diagrammed and illustrated. The Silk Road has recently been featured in several historical exhibits showing goods, caravans, and the inhospitable terrain the traders had to cross (see Neera Badhwar, "From the Silk Trade Route to the World Trade Center
, September/October 2002). Countless other artifacts are available, and often exhibited, but to my knowledge have never been organized under the theme of commerce.
Double-entry bookkeeping, to take another example, was invented by northern Italian merchants in the early Renaissance. The first published description of the new method, by Renaissance mathematician Luca Pacioli in 1494, is in the Smithsonian's Dibner Library collection of rare mathematics books. Historians of accounting have argued that this method of tracking revenue and expense, still the foundation of all accounting, was as important for business as the invention of calculus was for science. It allowed business owners and their creditors to calculate how much value was being created or lost in an enterprise of any size and complexity, and thus to manage large-scale operations rationally. Without it, the merchants of Venice and Florence could not have produced the wealth that funded Europe's commercial expansion—and subsidized the glorious art that fills our museums.
With the Industrial Revolution and the birth of capitalism, of course, production and trade exploded to levels that made everything before them seem primitive. Both population and standards of living rose geometrically—trends that could easily be displayed in dramatic ways—demonstrating the power of the human mind and individual enterprise to serve human life. Technological innovation came in wave upon wave, from the steam engine to the information revolution of our own time.
And then there are the heroes of commerce, the giants who pioneered new techniques, created new industries, took huge risks, and earned great wealth, like the Rothschild family and J.P. Morgan in banking; Richard Arkwright, Eli Whitney, and Henry Ford in manufacturing; Cornelius Vanderbilt in transportation; and many, many others. Few people understand their accomplishments, and existing museums are not always much help.
The Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, New York, for example, was built by Cornelius's grandson. This emblem of nineteenth-century capitalism is now owned, improbably, by the National Park Service; tours are led by park rangers in their woodland uniforms. You will learn a lot about the social life of the Vanderbilts, and something about the railroad business of the time, but nothing about the foundation of the family's wealth: Cornelius Vanderbilt's genius for production. In his early career as a steamship operator, he made his fortune by ruthlessly cutting costs and reducing prices. On the Hudson River route from Albany to New York, for example, he cut the price from $7 to under $1 and drove his government-subsidized competitors out of business.
In addition to such concrete artifacts and achievements, a museum of capitalism could exhibit and explain the principles of commerce. Abstractions can be made concrete through inventive models and interactive displays like those illustrating the scale of the universe in the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
A case in point is the division of labor, one of the most important concepts in understanding production and exchange. Adam Smith began his great Wealth of Nations
by describing the division of labor as the cause of "the greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour" and went on to give a wonderfully evocative account of the thousands of specialized workers involved in making a poor man's woolen coat, from the shepherd who tends the sheep to the spinner and weaver who make the fabric to the merchant who sells it, and on to the countless others who make the tools for these trades, from metal shears to sailing ships.
How difficult would it be to communicate that concept visually? Natural history museums often have displays showing the branching paths of evolution, as species of animals multiply from a common ancestor, acquiring increasingly specialized modes of adaptation to their environments. A similar display could make it vividly clear how a task performed by a single person in a primitive economy becomes the work of many specialized workers—with huge gains in output per hour worked.
What the Museum Would Celebrate
If there is no museum of capitalism, then, it is not because it can't be done. It's because commerce has never been considered worthy of cultural recognition. The arbiters of our culture, from philosophers to artists to editorial writers, disdain the pursuit of material wealth. They fear the unceasing change that capitalism unleashes. They denounce self-interest as a motive. But those are virtues of capitalism, not vices. Wealth is achieved by creating value; it requires the same intelligence, imagination, courage, and dedication as any other form of human creativity. The dynamism of markets reflects the drive to better our condition, the source of human progress. The pursuit of self-interest is another name for the pursuit of happiness, a fundamental right of every person.
And where better to celebrate these virtues than in New York City, at the place where they came under hideous assault?
In its specifications for rebuilding the World Trade Center site, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) set the goal of "reaffirming the democratic ideals that came under attack on September 11." It proposed "a new museum dedicated to American freedom, tolerance, and the values that the World Trade Center represented." The LMDC and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the site, have now chosen a plan designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind that includes room for museums and performing-arts facilities, surrounding a memorial to the victims of the attack. According to recent news reports, a number of museums and cultural organizations are vying for that space.
Just as the victims of the attack deserve a memorial, however, any cultural element of the new complex should befit the cultural meaning of September 11. What were the values under attack? Democracy, freedom, and tolerance, as the LMDC specifications suggested? Yes, these are among the things the terrorists hated. As we have said in these pages before, al-Qaeda is the terrorist wing of a fanatical Islamist ideology that opposes the global influence of modernity: the secular Enlightenment culture of reason, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness. That culture did indeed produce democracy, freedom, and tolerance.
But they are not the essential values at stake in this case. The World Trade Center had little to do with democracy, which is a political value; though owned by a government agency, the World Trade Center had no governmental function. It had a bit more to do with tolerance. With enterprises from scores of countries, it embodied the truth that wherever trade has been allowed to cross borders freely, it has broken down the walls of prejudice and hostility among peoples. In a famous passage of his Letters Concerning the English Nation
(1733), Voltaire described the London stock exchange as a place where "the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of Infidel to none but bankrupts" (Voltaire [François-Marie Arouet], "Reflections on Religion," in The Portable Enlightenment Reader
, edited by Isaac Kramnick, New York: Penguin Books, 1995, p. 133).
The twin towers were an expression of freedom, in the deepest sense. "The sort of people who work in financial markets," noted the economic journalist Michael Lewis shortly after the attack, "are not merely symbols but practitioners of liberty. They do not suffer constraints on their private ambitions, and they work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraints. This makes them, almost by default, the spiritual antithesis of the religious fundamentalist, whose business depends on the denial of personal liberty in the name of some putatively higher power" ("Why You?" New York Times, September 23, 2001).
In the end, however, freedom and tolerance are not the essential values that the World Trade Center represented. Those values are represented equally well by our universities, our political parties, our churches, our baseball teams. What distinguished the World Trade Center was its role in global trade and commerce. The people who worked in those buildings—from the bankers and bond traders to the engineers, educators, travel agents, and many others—were exercising their freedom for a specific purpose: to produce. They were creators of wealth. What the World Trade Center symbolized most clearly and unambiguously was capitalism.
If there is to be a museum on the site of those towers, let it be a museum of capitalism.