The Greatest Showman: celebration of capitalism, or moral failure?

When I heard that The Greatest Showman had received negative reviews in the media, I knew I had to see it and take the whole family! As expected, it was a spectacular movie in every way. The songs, the acting performances, the dialogue, the choreography and the cinematography were all first class, and it was just downright entertaining and fun. I have not found any reviews with anything bad to say about the production quality and nobody denying that it was a rip-roaring piece of entertainment. But what I loved about it on a thematic level, which is what sticks in the craw of the left wing commentators and critics, was that it was a celebration of capitalism.

Hugh Jackman portrays a nineteenth-century P.T. Barnum who is motivated by the lure of making money, and also by a desire to be respected by the upper class, so he can stick it to his sneering snobbish father-in-law. And yet despite these selfish base motives, he is an endearing character who has a barrel of fun along the way and ends up inadvertently benefiting everybody around him. His audiences are entertained, his performers find a sense of belonging as well as a way to make a productive living when nobody else would even give them a chance. Even his harshest critic in the movie (newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett) gets to write headline stories about the man he despises, and there is an oddly appealing chemistry between these two antagonistic characters.

None of Barnum’s employees in the film are under any illusions that Barnum is acting out of magnanimity or altruism towards them. He states this plainly when he hires them. “They’re laughing at us anyway, we might as well get paid for it”, he says as he recruits his “Tom Thumb”. Towards the end of the film the “bearded lady” acknowledges that her employer may have been doing it “just to make a buck”, but it gave them a family and a place to belong nevertheless. Nobody, in their own estimation, is made worse off by their association with Barnum.

This is the beautiful thing about capitalism. With the right social institutions and the incentives they bring, motives don’t matter that much. This is a wonderful thing if you think that other people’s motives are not something you can change very much. Social good can come out of moral ambivalence.

Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments published in 1759 and his Wealth of Nations in 1776 was the writer who was probably the most disparaging towards capitalists as a class, until Karl Marx took up his pen in the following century. Smith referred to business owners as people who “seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”. And yet despite his disdain for capitalists and their morally questionable motives, the system of free enterprise forced them to serve the interests of other people. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages” he states.

If good motives lead to good actions, nobody has cause for concern. If bad motives lead to bad actions, all decent people can agree that it is an offence. The tricky part, of course, is when motives and actions cross over, and this is where people differ depending on their worldview.

Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions classifies ideologies into either constrained, or unconstrained visions of humanity. In the constrained view of human nature and society, human beings are fallible and have the potential to do good, bad or indifferent acts depending on the trade-offs and incentives they face. People change, but not much. For people with this worldview (like Adam Smith) social norms and institutions matter a lot; they can produce good (or at least better) results from the constrained set of options available. If a voluntary interaction makes two people better off than they otherwise would have been in their own estimation (which must necessarily be true if it is voluntary) and nobody else is made worse off, then society is better off, by the measure of two more satisfied individuals.

In what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision, the human organism is ultimately perfectible, here and now in this present world. What we should all strive for, according to this view, are ultimate solutions to social problems rather than best-we-can-do trade-offs. William Godwin in his 1793 work Enquiry Concerning Political Justice asked us to think about “men as they may hereafter be made” in contrast to Edmund Burke’s view that “We cannot change the nature of things and of men – but must act upon them as best we can.”

It is human nature that must be continually improved by social and political institutions, rather than human behaviour. Top-down political approaches are usually preferred to bottom-up chaotic progress, due to its (at least apparent) power to force everybody to embrace the new paradigm. But people acting out of selfish motives, even if they accidentally benefit other people are a hindrance to this cause. Bad motives left unchecked are a stain on the burgeoning ‘new socialist man’ that these self-appointed social and moral reformers are setting out to fashion from the clay of individual greed and egocentrism.

This is what the leftist commentators hate about The Greatest Showman – and indeed about reality in general. To the progressive social reformer (embodied in the movie by newspaperman James Gordon Bennett and in the present by just about every left-leaning film reviewer) motivesmatter a lot; perhaps even more than the actions they motivate. ‘Bad motives’ must at all times be called out and condemned absolutely. Barnum had bad motives, and they were not sufficiently condemned in the movie, they complain.

For the social progressive, a leftist revolutionary dictator like Stalin, Mao, Castro or Chavez, who claims to be motivated by a sense of egalitarianism and ostensibly acts on behalf of “the people” is acclaimed for their righteous rhetoric, both before and after their reign of terror. When their actions turn out to involve mass murder, to ruin the economy, to make the poor even poorer, and to cause mass starvation (but coincidentally make the rulers and their cronies inexplicably rich) they are given an incredible amount of slack. Well, nobody is perfect, don’t be so hard on yourself! Look on the bright side – at least you taught those greedy capitalist imperialist pigs a thing or two! There is always next time!

But if you are a greedy capitalist like P.T. Barnum, your motives are enough to condemn you, no matter what you do. If your motives were ‘impure’ we don’t even need to look at your actions – we know you are evil, period. What did they call the American industrialists who made steamboat transportation affordable or even free (hoping you would buy a meal on board), or who made steel affordable enough to build railroads across the country, or who made kerosene so affordable in their day that whaling became unviable? Why, what else could you call those men than Robber Barons? A fairly loaded turn of phrase, don’t you think? Don’t even bother to look at their actions – they are officially stamped as bad guys.

Here we have one of those evil miscreants in the historical character of P.T. Barnum. His fortune was not on the scale of a Vanderbilt or a Carnegie or a Rockefeller, but his entrepreneurial spirit and style was from a similar school. In making a movie based on his life, here was a perfect opportunity to call out and expose a racist, and an exploiter of the disabled, and of other oppressed classes. And more objectionably (from their perspective), a man who did all this for money.

The fact that people preferred to work in his circus instead of choosing anything else from their (constrained) set of options does not matter. If you read any of the critical reviews of the film, this is the criticism you will find. They will wail about Barnum’s moral impurity (from their point of view) and express their disappointment that the film was made into a family-friendly musical, that even they, if they strip away their ideological objections, must admit that they enjoyed.

This article was also published by The Spectator Australia, January 16, 2017.

Mark Hornshaw

Mark Hornshaw

Mark Hornshaw is a lecturer in Economics, Entrepreneurship and Management at The University of Notre Dame Australia.
Mark Hornshaw

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