The Rise of "Reality Capitalism"

Risk, reward, and virtue in American business

If pop culture is a leading indicator of social change, one emerging TV genre should be applauded. It is a flood of reality shows that focus on the daily dynamics by which self-made people conduct business: Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers, American Pickers, Deadliest Catch, Hardcore Pawn, Yukon Gold, Storage Wars, and others.

I call it “reality capitalism,” and it is the polar opposite of crony capitalism. 

They display people taking risks and prospering (or not) through hard work and good judgment. They embody the opposite of cronyism because government privilege is nowhere to be seen.

Some aspects of the programs feel contrived, but what matters is that small businessmen and working people are elevated to a status that used to be reserved for those featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Fans tune in to see whether Mike and Frank (American Pickers) will find a “honey hole” as they travel America. Perhaps a barn in Rhode Island will contain a rare Harley or one of the old metal gasoline signs that sells in a flash in their Iowa shop. Viewers groan in amused exasperation as Rick (Pawn Stars) flaunts arcane facts about the antiques people bring in. The items and negotiation are fascinating, and the businessmen are thoroughly likable because of the honesty, humor, and respect with which they treat sellers.

The shows also explain the simple mechanisms of the free market. Mike and Frank discuss the end-price they will put on items and tell the seller why they need to buy at approximately 50% of that figure. The words “gas money” come up frequently. Rick's favorite phrase is, “I'm taking all the risk.” Then he comments on overhead and how long an item might take up room in his store. In both programs, the buyer sometimes pays more than the asking price because he knows the true value of a good and does not want to cheat the seller. The fairness is not only a matter of ethics but also good business: it establishes trust.

The reality capitalism genre can be roughly broken into two categories: entrepreneurs who are business owners, and working people who struggle to prosper against the odds.

Yukon Gold features small mining crews who search for gold in the Yukon during its four-month window of opportunity. Machinery breaks, nature strikes, and crew members fight against their own discouragement. Ice Road Truckers follows truck drivers who confront frozen lakes and treacherous situations as they haul loads across Arctic areas of Alaska and Canada. Both shows focus on why the people assume work in such terrible conditions: money. Most of them are after a better life for their families.

They are entrepreneurs who gamble with their own time, money, and energy to establish businesses through which everyone profits. They are people who overcome obstacles for a chance for their families to prosper. It is heartening to see society’s true heroes receive the acknowledgement they deserve.

Further Reading

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