The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Philosophy

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The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Philosophy:

How Minnie Mouse Refutes Marxism

by Jason Brennan

Can the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a CGI-animated children’s s show, settle the debate between capitalists and socialists, once and for all?

The great Marxist philosopher Gerald Cohen, in his recent book Why Not Socialism?, argues most of us are already committed to the thinking that a perfectly just society would be socialist. We put up with capitalism only because we think we have to, because we’re not nice enough for socialism.

Even capitalism’s great defenders seem to agree. The average microeconomics textbook says that markets work because they channel selfish motives into publically beneficial ends. On a well-regulated market, people get rich by making things others want at prices they can afford to pay. Socialism fails in part because we’re not willing to work hard for the common good.

Cohen has a simple argument for the moral superiority of socialism. He asks you to imagine a camping trip among friends. The friends, motivated by kindness and sense of the common good, distribute the benefits and burdens of camping in an equitable way. The trip sounds wonderful. But then Cohen asks us to imagine the campers start acting “like capitalists”—they refuse to help each other unless they get paid. The camp looks awful. Cohen asks, wasn’t the socialist version of the camping trip clearly better than the capitalist version? If we could make the whole world like the socialist camping trip, wouldn’t that clearly be better, from a moral point of view, than real-life capitalism?

The debate between capitalists and socialists seemed to be at an impasse. Capitalists win at the level of practical politics; socialists win at the level of ideals. Capitalism is a good system for bad people; socialism is a good system for good people.

I realized a few years ago that there was an essential flaw in Cohen’s argument: He did not compare like to like. He compared an idealized, fictional form of socialism—in which he more or less stipulated that people were morally perfect—to realistic capitalism—in which people are the way they are. He might be right that ideal socialism is better than real capitalism, but that leaves open the question of whether ideal capitalism might be even better than ideal socialism.

That’s where the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse comes in, as I explain in my new book, Why Not Capitalism? Leave it to Disney, to a kid’s show, to present a compelling image of what a morally flawless society might look like. In the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Donald Duck, and so on, live together in a village. Everyone is morally perfect. (Or, to be more precise: Any flaws the characters exhibit exist only to teach lessons to toddlers, or for comedic effect. But these flaws are not essential and could be written out.) Everyone is committed to and acts upon principles of respect, tolerance, social justice, reciprocity, and benevolence. Everyone always helps everyone else in need, no one takes advantage of anyone else, and everyone has everything she needs to flourish. And—not but, but “and”—they’re robust capitalists.

Minnie Mouse owns a “Bowtique”: a bow factory and store. Clarabelle Cow owns a muffin factory and sundries store. Donald Duck and Willie the Giant own farms. Scrooge McDuck owns nanotech machinery.

The characters trade value for value, and are happy to do so. It means something for Minnie to be able to sell bows to others – that others are willing to buy from her because they like the bows rather than as a favor to her. The characters take joy in being able to produce things that others want for their own sake.

Human beings are “project pursuers”—part of what gives meaning and coherence to our lives, at least for most of us, is that we engage in long-term projects, confront long-term challenges, and master skills over the long-term. For us to pursue such projects often requires sustained and exclusive access to the same goods over time; that is, private property rights. Willie the Giant doesn’t just want to be a farmer or to plow the common fields. He wants a farm he can shape according to his own vision of how farming ought to go. Minnie doesn’t just want to make bows at the collective craft table; she wants to have her own tools so she can make bows according to her own vision.

Some philosophers – themselves never having owned a business – might have a hard time understanding these kinds of desires. But if that philosopher can understand why one might want to write a book by oneself, rather than with co-authors or by committee, the philosopher can similarly understand why someone might want to own a factory or a farm or a store. Or, if an artist can understand why one might want to paint by oneself, rather than having each brushstroke decided by committee, or rather than having to produce each painting collectively, then the artist can similarly understand why someone might want to own a factory or a farm or a store.

Socialists might complain that capitalism leads to exploitation and harm. No doubt in the real world it does. And, no doubt, in the real world, socialism is even worse. But Cohen wants us to ask what economic institutions morally perfect people would live under. Just as his ideal socialists are too kind to exploit one another, so the ideal capitalist Minnie Mouse is too kind to do so. If Cohen can imagine away Soviet-style gulags in his ideal socialist utopia, then we can similarly imagine away sweatshops in our ideal capitalist utopia.

Cohen already admits that, in the real world, capitalism, for all its terrible shortcomings, does better than socialism. But, as the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse shows us, even in ideal conditions, capitalism retains the moral high ground. Capitalism beats socialism at every level.

Jason Brennan is an assistant professor of economics, ethics, and public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He publishes on democratic theory and the moral foundations of market society, and blogs at http://www.bleedingheartlibertarians.com.

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One thought on “The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Philosophy

  1. Pingback: The Philosophy and Pop Culture ‘Top 10′: True Detective, Burning Man, Mickey Mouse, 24, Minecraft and more | The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

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