Mamet on the Money

While there are many aspects to what we do here at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, our fundamental goal is to use exhaustive and scholarly policy research to help people understand and practice the fundamentals of a free society. So it’s encouraging when we see a well-known writer, David Mamet, explain how he was convinced of the importance and fundamental goodness of free markets, which he explained recently in a wonderful essay in the Village Voice. It’s a refreshing point of view — he’s not trying to convince the reader of his ideas, he’s simply chronicling how his own perceptions changed.

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For Mamet, this realization came when looking at the characters in his latest play:

The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it’s at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.

Changing your mind doesn’t happen all at one time, nor does it happen generally over practical matters, but at a more basic level. As a fundamental starting point to his political thought, Mamet began with the idea "that everything is always wrong." Over further inspection, one thing came to his mind — that everything wasn’t wrong. His views of people also changed — that they may be good, but are faced with corruption and faults as well:

One was of a state where everything was magically wrong and must be immediately corrected at any cost; and the other — the world in which I actually functioned day to day — was made up of people, most of whom were reasonably trying to maximize their comfort by getting along with each other (in the workplace, the marketplace, the jury room, on the freeway, even at the school-board meeting).

This change in views also fostered respect for American government, the separation of powers in particular, which keeps vice geared towards power in check.

In exploring that alternate viewpoint, he inspected some of the facets of his politics, one being that there is a privileged class. What quashed that idea was the realization that Americans are remarkably dynamic: "The rich and the children of the rich can go belly-up; the hegemony of the railroads is appropriated by the airlines, that of the networks by the Internet; and the individual may and probably will change status more than once within his lifetime."

It’s not likely that this change occurred in such neat progression. Mamet, after all, claims to have been reading books by Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson and Shelby Steele. By examining his body of work, however, one may see his beliefs in transition as early as 1997, when he released his film "The Edge."

In "The Edge" screenplay, which Mamet also directed, the lead character, Charles Morse (played by Anthony Hopkins), defies Hollywood’s traditional representation of a wealthy man by depicting him as intelligent and resourceful — the qualities that enable him both to amass a fortune and survive being stranded in the Alaskan wilderness. In almost any other Hollywood film, the wealthy man would be effete and require saving by a salt-of-the-earth individual whose income and savings are substantially less.

Contrast this with the scene Mamet added for the 1992 James Foley-directed film version of "Glengarry Glen Ross," which coincidentally also co-stars Alec Baldwin. In this scene (found here; please note that the language is extremely coarse), Baldwin depicts the clichéd version of the successful businessman as a berating, bullying tyrant. Although, no doubt, individuals such as Baldwin’s character actually exist in the real business world, according to Hollywood there exists only that type.

Readers doubting whether Mamet’s free-market views are genuine or not may wish to refer to a Jan. 10, 2008, interview with him in "New York Magazine." In the article, Boris Kachka asks why Mamet would presumably lower himself to direct television commercials for Ford Motor Company, to which he responds: "I did it for the money. Why do you think I did it?" Kachka’s predictable follow-up is to question whether the playwright and director "needed the money that badly." Mamet’s classic response? "Well, it’s nice to have, because you can buy things with it."


James M. Hohman is a fiscal policy research assistant and Bruce Edward Walker is communications manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and education institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the authors and the Center are properly cited.

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