Portrait of a Capitalist: PBS Show ‘Mr. Selfridge’

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published April 1, 2013

Premiering this week on Masterpiece Classic on PBS, Mr. Selfridge is an interesting and enjoyable ten-part drama series. It tells the story of Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American businessman who brings a new kind of shopping experience to Great Britain and shakes up that staid nation’s economy.

Selfridge, played excellently by Jeremy Piven (Entourage), arrives in London in the first decade of the twentieth century and opens the nation’s first modern-style department store, called Selfridge’s. He has already had great success in transforming Chicago’s Marshall Field’s store into the world’s first department store, and is now taking that idea to England.

This establishment is even more ambitious, unlike anything else found in England at the time. Whereas other shops keep their goods hidden, and their staffs function as authoritarian figures deciding for the customer what the person should buy, Selfridge’s is consumer-oriented and a palace of entertainment. Gorgeous architecture and amenities greet the customers, and show-biz elements are common, such that the establishment is a spectacular entertainment medium in addition to being a shopping place.

Instead of hiding the wares in storage areas and closed cases, bringing them out only when the staff has decided what a customer should have, Selfridge’s puts all the wares on open display and invites the individual to browse and appreciate the astonishing array of goods available. (It also creates the new problem of shoplifting, which is alluded to in the first episode.) Selfridge is believed to have coined the phrase “The customer is always right,” and his staff are trained to take a servant’s mentality, seeking out what the customer wants, instead of deciding what the person should want.

Selfridge is something of a mass of contradictions, but his character is fully believable and true to life as played by Piven. The entrepreneur is a real promoter, openly in search of success and riches, but he is also something of an idealist, wanting to bring a better life to the masses. He is a family man who seems bound to succumb to temptations to break his marriage vows. He is a driven, self-made man who also really cares about the people who work for him. He is a huckster who truly cares for his customers. He is, in short a true businessman.

Selfridge’s big idea truly changed the world, but in part because it fit so well into a world that was already changing. With women enjoying new independence and more free time in the new century, and with prosperity rising thanks to the workings of the Industrial Revolution and market capitalism, the kind of democratic approach to merchant sales is both socially welcome and economically efficient. On the other hand, the efficiency of Selfridge’s, made possible by economies of scale, will ultimately make it and other stores like it much more efficient than their predecessors, which will end up driving the latter out of business.

This is a good thing overall for society, a classic example of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumepter‘s observation of “creative destruction” at the heart of market capitalism (a notion derived from Marx but embraced by free-market thinkers), but it is also, of course, a personal catastrophe for those businesses that are creatively destroyed by Selfridge’s and its imitators.

In addition, the social forces that make Selfridge’s such a brilliant idea also lead to a consumer mentality that affects everything—not just business but also entertainment and even politics—as the century wears on. This intense individualism apparently fostered by both the market and the culture would soon come to be a worry for both Left (under the Frankfurt School’s pervasive influence) and the traditionalist Right, with its opposition to rapid social change.

Yet although these two very different critiques of the social effects of market have some valid points to make, they tend to overlook the fact that on balance the changes were highly salutary indeed.

Traditionalists ought to acknowledge that the social and technological changes that unleashed the greater individualism also helped rid the world of much ignorance and prejudice (which statist forces on both the left and right have continually tried to replace with prejudices and superstitions of their own). Leftists, for their part, ought to do much better at acknowledging the astounding material and social benefits that market capitalism has brought to people such that what is considered poverty in the United States today was once great wealth here and is still an unattainable standard of living for most of the world.

By creating a smoother and more reliable bridge between producer and consumer, Selfridge and his imitators enabled producers to bring their wares to a vastly expanded market, thus expanding greatly the economies of scale throughout the economy. The expanding market led to many more and better jobs, which led in turn to further market expansion and so on, in a virtuous circle of economic growth. The only thing that could stand in the way of all of this truly wonderful progress was government, and it has done so with horribly impressive effectiveness in the decades since Marshall Field’s, Selfridge’s, and other institutions of consumer empowerment freed people from widespread want and ignorance.

The pilot episode of Mr. Selfridge does not dig into all of these implications, but this story of entrepreneurship and innovation set near the time of Downton Abbey does suggest such thoughts and themes quite clearly in the intelligent screenplay by the always skillful Andrew Davies. Instead of pushing particular conclusions on the viewer, Davies lets the events speak for themselves, and they are quite eloquent for those who are attuned to the implications. Piven’s performance conveys Selfridge’s virtues and vices with equal skill, and the result is a character whom we can like and respect without forgetting his all-too-human weaknesses.

The pilot episode of Mr. Selfridge clearly indicates an awareness of and respect for both the greatness and shortcomings of market capitalism. What is more impressive is that the show represents neither unbridled cheerleading nor unfair criticism of the market. In all, episode one of Mr. Selfridge is a balanced, sympathetic, and wise portrait of a capitalist. As such, it is a welcome example of thoughtfulness in our increasingly politicized and ignorant times.

[First posted at The American Culture.]