Crony Capitalism In Fiction: Catch-22

In Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22, Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder is a walking parody of a conscience-free capitalist. After he impulsively buys all the cotton in Egypt, he’s frantic to unload his expensive haul–but no one is interested in buying it. Catch-22’s main character, Yossarian, suggests Milo sell all his unwanted cotton to the U.S. government. This exchange follows:

Milo vetoed the idea brusquely. “It’s a matter of principle,” he explained firmly. “The government has no business in business, and I would be the last person in the world to ever try to involve the government in a business of mine. But the business of government is business,” he remembered alertly, and continued with elation. “Calvin Coolidge said that, and Calvin Coolidge was a President, so it must be true. And the government does have the responsibility of buying all the Egyptian cotton I’ve got that no one else wants so that I can make a profit, doesn’t it?” Milo’s face clouded almost as abruptly, and his spirits descended into a state of sad anxiety. “But how will I get the government to do it?”

“Bribe it,” Yossarian said.

“Bribe it!” Milo was outraged and almost lost his balance and broke his neck again.


“You’ll be alright,” Yossarian assured him with confidence. “If you run into trouble, just tell everyone that the security of the country requires a strong domestic Egyptian-cotton speculating industry.”

“It does,” Milo informed him solemnly. “A strong Egyptian-cotton speculating industry means a much stronger America.”

“Of course it does. And if that doesn’t work, point out the great number of American families that depend on it for income.”

“A great many American families do depend on it for income.”

“You see?” said Yossarian. “You’re much better at it than I am. You almost make it sound true.”