Mad Men and the Life of Capitalism
The Primetime Emmy Awards Ceremony is set to take place on September 23, 2012 and the AMC series “Mad Men” is tied with FX’s “American Horror Story” for the most nominations with a total of 17. Like the four years before it, Mad Men is expected to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. For those not in the know, Mad Men centers primarily around the life of creative advertisement director Don Draper and the agency of which he is a partner of on Madison Avenue in New York City. The show, which was created and is produced by Matthew Weiner, takes place during the politically turbulent 1960s. It has been critically acclaimed for its historical accuracy and remains the only basic cable television show to win an Emmy for Outstanding Drama series.
The Guardian calls it “piercingly bleak portrait of a 1960s American anti-hero.” Gregory Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Times says the show excels at presenting stories full of “characters fighting to achieve personal liberation in the restless years before the advent of the full-blown culture wars.”
Because human value is at all times subjective, it’s difficult to determine why so many viewers are attracted to Mad Men. The show is full of complex relationships, wild romance, substance addiction, and plot twists. It contains all the elements prevalent in many popular television shows. But what stands out most is how unflattering and true to life it can be. The business life portrayed is not easy in the least. In his constant effort to keep the advertisement agency afloat, Don Draper must balance his chaotic private life with the challenges that come from cutthroat market competition.
While a fictional show, Mad Men succeeds at imitating the difficulty a gifted entrepreneur faces when trying to build something of value. Through his ups and downs, Draper’s ability to tap into the conscience of the American consumer is displayed in such a way that it turns advertisement into an art. Since it takes place at a time when socialism was in vogue and the new left was beginning to form, a running theme of the show is that advertisement is somehow deserving of loathing. Advertisement is continuously made out to be a shameful profession. In one particular episode, Draper is sitting in a bar with a young, leftist Berkeley student who playfully criticizes the life of an executive. When asked to explain, she simply declares “I am not political, I just don’t understand who’s in charge.” In a wonderful defense on the workings of capitalism, Draper responds by telling her, “you are in charge; trust me I work in advertising.” Perplexed, the student exclaims “you are kidding me; it’s pollution!” Draper wittily counters with “so stop buying things”.
In our modern world of capitalism bashing by politicians and journalists alike, Draper’s response cuts through the emotionally-amplified language often associated with critiques of the free market. What Ludwig von Mises called the “anticapitalist mentality” is a pervasive element of what passes for informed economic commentary today. From television to newspapers, Joe Public is constantly bombarded with suggestions that free markets are based on greedy capitalists selling junk to consumer saps and subjecting workers to slave-like working conditions. But of course the widely believed fable of capitalist exploitation is just that: a fable unto itself. Capitalism, by definition, is a system of voluntary exchange through the necessary foundation of private property.
Because it’s in man’s nature to own and acquire property for his own sustenance, all transactions in a free market are reciprocal. In other words, people don’t transact with one another if they think the deal isn’t in their best interest.
Instead of preying on the hapless, advertisement informs the consumer of his or her choices in the marketplace. There is nothing morally wrong with trying to convince someone to purchase their wares. Unlike government which relies on a gun to the head of the citizenry for revenue, businessmen only earn income from consumers who have a choice in the matter. Draper is correct as the consumer ends up being the driver force of capitalism; not business.
Because advertising is an extension of the consumerism, it remains a target of the market-hating left. John Kenneth Galbraith famously condemned advertisement in his The Affluent Society. Galbraith, like those critics on the show, argues that advertisers stalk the witless and convince them to buy what they otherwise wouldn’t. He calls advertisement the “machinery for consumer-demand creation.”
This notion is utter nonsense. Advertisers have no otherworldly ability to implant demand. As Murray Rothbard explains,
It’s unclear if Mad Men is purposefully a defense of capitalism but through Draper’s work, creativity is shown as a talent instead of weapon. He may be a capitalist but Draper is a human being who has the same vices as anyone else.
In the end, Mad Men hasn’t received a load of awards and accolades because of its twist on supposed innocent decade of the 1960s. Through the grittiness, drama, and heavy boozing is a vignette of life outside of conventional illustration. Keynesians often depict the economy as an inhuman machine that turns out goods at an unceasing rate. What Mad Men presents is the heart of commercial activity. Life for the advertisement agency is a dynamic affair where clients must be wowed over and over again. There is no guarantee of success for Draper and company; just as there isn’t in any market activity.
If Mad Men goes on to win its fifth Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in a row, it will be well-deserved. The show is not only a visually accurate representation of a decade far from wholesome but it gives an unapologetic vision of capitalism. Perhaps if more shows existed like it, the free market would attract more supporters.
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