Cover Story

Flea market capitalists: Disaffected and disenchanted

You probably spent time in the past year talking about large national, even global, issues. Though you know that millions of people vote in elections, you still assume that your voice and your vote matter. You are probably a member or a leader of several institutions—family, congregation, professional group, civic organization, school. You may have engaged in some way with a governmental body at the local, state or federal level. To a large extent, your participation in this interwoven social fabric defines who you are. When you think about your vocation or when you dream of changing the world—whether locally or globally—you think in terms of these social units.

Tens of millions of Americans do not live or think this way. They see themselves as isolated individuals struggling in a forbidding environment. They may be close to a few family members or friends, but they do not see themselves as belonging to any community, certainly not any community marked out by a government and usually not any congregation or civic group either. They experience institutions as centers of power and control that do things to them, not for them or with them.

Often, they view their lonely individualism as a heroic choice. If institutional power is outside their control, then the best strategy, they have concluded, is to keep those institutions from controlling them, to whatever degree possible. This, for them, is the meaning of freedom. Freedom does not mean doing whatever one wants—that takes power and money. Freedom means making a few private, personal choices in a context mostly determined by others.