The Atlantic’s Odd Case Against Capitalism

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Capitalism’s foes can’t make much headway arguing that socialist societies do a better job at providing for the economic and physical needs of the population, so critics are reduced to ferreting out minuscule or made-up problems that capitalist economies create. Most of these flaws are so picayune as to be laughable, yet it’s best to track our enemies’ thinking just in case their ideas catch on.

And some of this nonsense is funny to read. The latest attention-grabber comes from Julie Beck, writing in the Atlantic under the headline, “How Hobbies Infiltrated American Life.” Most Americans find that their pastimes — sewing, baking, bicycling, hiking, gardening, etc. — help ensure a richer and more fulfilling life. We learn lessons from these undertakings, which provide an enjoyable respite from our workaday and often-sedentary lives.

Capitalism provides an abundance of wealth, which we can squander on our latest crafts.

But Beck sees hobbies as something potentially insidious — an indictment of capitalist America’s emphasis on accomplishment and productivity. “If you’ve ever felt like your Instagram feed is taunting you with all the lovely crafts, elaborate home-cooked meals, and sweaty Peloton rides that other people seem to manage to fill their time with, … there is a reason for this,” she wrote. “The anxieties of capitalism are not confined to the workplace.”

She argues that this focus on hobbies predates the coronavirus epidemic — and that society once viewed hobbies as an “obsessive fixation” rather than something aspirational and wholesome. As she explains it, the Industrial Revolution reduced Americans’ work hours, but moralists saw the resulting leisure time as leading to delinquency and moral depravity. The result was a focus on “serious leisure,” where people honed skills unrelated to their work. Voila, “hobbies.”

To most of us, that sounds like a good thing. Human beings are intelligent creatures, and those of us who pursue particular hobbies tend to do so with joy and gusto — and we naturally want to improve our skills, learn new techniques, and join with others in pursuing these passions. Capitalism gives us the time and money to, say, figure out how to bake the finest gluten-free bread or plot a challenging hike through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Perhaps capitalism causes these anxieties, as we read on social media about how are friends are doing so much more with their time than we are. But this certainly beats the anxieties of socialism — wondering whether you’ll even be able to buy a basic sack of flour, waiting in line at the store, or wondering whether your uncle is still in the gulag. Capitalism provides an abundance of wealth, which we can squander on our latest crafts.

Capitalism is nothing more than the result of the multiple choices that people freely make. People use that freedom to make good and bad decisions. Other people’s choices might cause you some stress, but we’re all free to reject hobbies and pursue a life of indolence and sloth. Beck quotes author Steven Gelber, who says that hobbyists are “seldom aware of the ideological implications of their pastimes,” which apparently emanate from the Protestant work ethic. Excuse my grandmother for never contemplating the ideological underpinnings of knitting.

What do foes of hobbyism prefer? A focus on “relationships, contemplation and rest … hanging out with your friends, caring for your family, enjoying creature comforts, replenishing your energy” and other things that are “good for the soul,” Beck argues. To each their own, but I don’t see those activities as mutually exclusive. My wife says I’m less annoying when I’m pursuing my hobbies rather than lying around, drinking wine, and watching TV. I find a scooter ride more replenishing than a nap.

None of this is an indictment of capitalism, unless one really believes that fewer choices and opportunities create more-meaningful lives. No one should be surprised to read such drivel in the Atlantic. The publication churns out an endless series of such critiques, including “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots,” “How Capitalism Broke Young Adulthood,” and “The Capitalist Threat.”

Many common-good and populist conservatives also like to zing capitalism. Sohrab Ahmari, for instance, has made a return to the Sabbath through the restoration of blue laws his second-highest policy priority, based on his recent American Conservative column. I’m not sure how it will benefit people to have a government-mandated store shutdown on Sundays. If you’re tempted to embrace nonsensical blue laws, then buy liquor sometime at a Pennsylvania state store.

Anti-market conservatives might find allies on the left. Joel Mathis writes in the Week: “Post-religious American capitalism doesn’t leave us much room to just relax, and it shows.… So a new era of blue laws could hold some appeal even to the not-so-religious left. ‘Elevator pitch: a secular Sabbath that starts on Thursday evening,’ Jeet Heer, a columnist for The Nation, tweeted on Sunday. ‘This will create a four-day workweek and also preserve religious neutrality.’ ”

Of course, if we get those four-day weekends, it might be wrong to think about starting a new hobby.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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