Book Review: Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery (1999) by John Mueller

This is a brief review I wrote on my phone for goodreads.

I came to this book by way of Mueller’s partial use of circus history to illustrate his points about capitalism. It’s an approach in which I see a lot of potential and hope to use in my own writing. The problem with it in this case is that the author appears to be a lousy historian. He leans heavily on examples from poor and biased sources, most notably the outdated and glorifying book Those Amazing Ringlings and their Circus by Gene Plowden (published by Caxton Printers of Caldwell, Idaho in 1967, hardly a reputable academic source) and P.T. Barnum’s own braggadocio-laden writings. Elsewhere, he makes bold statements with no citation at all. For example, he claims that “honest” showmen like the Ringlings grew “far richer than the cheats who had preceded them” (25). Oh yeah? Please prove that, sir. Particularly since it is central to your argument.

Mueller also seems to have but little grasp on Gilded Age and Progressive Era cultural history, assuming that word of mouth or personal experience were enough to keep patrons away from the “dishonest” circuses. Again, the author offers no source for the proclamation that before Barnum (whose role in deciding the content or business practices of “his” circus was probably minimal) “the entire industry was on the verge of extinction because its customers, through experience, no longer were foolish enough to attend” (25). But it was the circus itself that controlled its publicity in a society of disconnected urban centers, which is why glowing, personal accounts of even the worst circuses are easy to find. With an entire country to account for, the idea that ‘everyone had already been to that circus and got cheated’ is preposterous. In short (I’m writing this on my phone), there is much more underlying history to Mueller’s anecdotes than perhaps a political scientist like him would like to admit.

Even though the circus history examples are but a small part of the book overall, the author’s free use of anecdotal history does not bode well for the book’s core (in my view, outlandish) thesis that capitalism is under-appreciated and democracy is overly hyped.

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