America's Coolest Capitalist TV ShowsWendy McElroy
Dec. 12, 2012
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The cultural elite routinely disdain reality TV as voyeuristic garbage being churned out for the unwashed masses. But this unwashed woman is a fan of a new subgenre of the category that has become a sensation: reality capitalism. That’s not what the subgenre calls itself, of course, but that’s what it amounts to.
A flood of reality shows now demonstrate the daily operation of capitalism through humor, personal interaction, down-to-earth explanations, and likeable people. The shows are an antidote to crony, phony capitalism because they offer a window into how ordinary people deal in the free market, where there are no government privileges — only voluntary exchange.
An incomplete listing of reality capitalism:
Pawn Stars: The show follows daily life at the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, Nev., with a focus on transactions with customers.
The affable co-owner Rick carefully checks the authenticity of each item pawned because, as he repeats like a mantra, the pawn shop lives or dies on its reputation. He patiently explains the cost of doing business to customers who want retail value for items being pawned: Namely, he has overhead, items linger on shelves, and the market is down X% from two years ago. Then they negotiate. Each successful transaction ends with a handshake; unsuccessful ones end with Rick saying, “thank you for coming in.” Pawn Stars is the No. 2 reality show in America after Jersey Shore. Spinoffs include Cajun Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn and Pawn Queens.
American Pickers: Mike and Frank drive throughout the Midwest buying collectables from barns and garages to sell in their Iowa store. An easygoing nature is their main buying strength, but another is their honesty. They refuse to take advantage of someone who is ignorant of an antique’s value, often offering more than is asked. In a voice-over, one of them explains that this practice is good business because it establishes trust for the rest of the negotiations and ensures a warm welcome if they return for another ‘pick.’ Spinoffs include Canadian Pickers and Picker Sisters.
Storage Wars: Professional buyers and resellers in California aggressively compete in bidding for abandoned storage lockers that are being auctioned. The competitive tactics are entertaining, but the show’s key message is the incredible risk these entrepreneurs take in bidding on lockers based only on what they can see upfront and what they can deduce. For example, Bloomingdale’s bags and plastic-wrapped furniture bode well; cardboard boxes marked “Christmas”…not so much. The lockers won by each bidder during the show are financially estimated at the end, and an individual profit or loss is ascribed to each person. The premier of the second season drew 5.1 million viewers. Spin-offs include Storage Wars: Texas and the upcoming Storage Wars: New York.
These shows — and a multitude of similar others — vividly demonstrate how the free market functions in the lives of real people. The shows stand in marked contrast to what is often viewed as the quintessential capitalist show — The Apprentice, hosted by billionaire businessman Donald Trump, in which 16-18 young business people form two teams to compete in accomplishing largely unrealistic goals, and are then judged by a panel of experts presided over by Trump. The ‘worst’ individual competitor is voted out, and so the field narrows. The prize for the ultimate ‘survivor,’ is a $250,000, one-year contract to head a Trump company.
The Apprentice has little to do with capitalism. Success ultimately hinges on the judgment of a panel — the vote of elites — rather than on free market feedback. The tasks are usually artificial in their content and context. The reward of winning a $250,000 lottery is quixotic and belongs in the realm of game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? There is no recognition of the role played in capitalism by risk or reputation, overhead and years of specialized knowledge. Worst of all: The final adjudicator of success is one man, and that man is Donald Trump. The Apprentice resembles crony capitalism and politics far more than the free market.
By contrast, reality capitalism TV relies entirely upon feedback from the marketplace. Rick makes a deal for his pawn shop based solely on the worth of an item and the willingness of a customer to deal. The tasks assumed by Mike and Frank are practical, such as sharing pleasantries with a farmer to gain access to an outbuilding filled with old ‘stuff.’ The rewards are reasonable; the winner of a good storage locker can usually expect to double the value of his bid. Risk, reputation, character, overhead and knowledge are crucial to success.
These so-called trash shows are capitalism at its best. It is the type of capitalism that ordinary people take home to pay their mortgages, a capitalism in which people shake each other’s hands at the end of a deal. It is not the bastardization of capitalism in which Donald Trump shouts, “You’re Fired!” at the end of every Apprentice show; the true spirit of exchange is expressed when Rick says, “Thank you for coming,” because he appreciates the business contact and hopes for future exchanges.
If you want to know where capitalism is flourishing, then look away from Wall Street, the White House, and the ivory tower. Capitalism has been thrown into the streets, unceremoniously but with applause. The streets are where capitalism belongs because that is where common people live and work. They are the last and best bastion of capitalism because they know that trading an honest dollar for honest work is what will feed their children.
Wendy McElroy is Author, lecturer, and freelance writer, and a senior associate of the Laissez Faire Club.