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Capitalism, Hooray!!! Materialism, Boo!!!

Posted by Chance on August 14, 2006

On a previous post, Michael stated this about the tyranny of the market.

Here is some of what I have in mind about the tyranny of the market: 1)How often do successful businesspeople have to uproot families and move in order to get ahead in a company? This is probably less thanks to telecommuting, but it is still huge. 2) The role of advertising, something not forseen by Adam Smith. (I insist that all supposed free market folk actually READ the Wealth of Nations. Why is it that, I, a democratic socialist, seem to know the foundational text of modern capitalism better than most capitalists?) Advertising creates “needs” for things that no one needs. In fact, people who use propaganda for political or war purposes, study advertising. 3)Unfettered market forces can never appreciate anything for itself, just for its market value–thus any virgin forest is a potential tree farm. Any mountain valued only for whatever minerals can be mined from its depths–even at the cost of the mountain itself. Any work of art is only valued for its sales value. 4) Unfettered market forces are acidic to relationships. After teaching us all day every day that humans are no more than “rational self-interested consumers” (Friedman), we come even to view spouse and children this way. (E.g., the trophy wife) When they are no longer useful to our individual advancement, we leave for other market-driven relationships. Even supporters of capitalism often admit that it is the biggest macro cause of family disintegration. (Although about more than just laissez fair capitalism, Marshall Berman’s _All That is Solid Melts Into Air_ speaks strongly to this.)

Then there is the way the market replaces wisdom with mere technical knowledge, so that if something CAN be built, it suddenly must be built, mass produced, and sold–no matter how unwise this would be. Conservatives rail against things like in vitro fertilzation (with some justification), but its rationale comes from the free market ideology’s affect on science: Conception, pregnancy, and birth are now marketable items. Surrogate motherhood is the same thing.

I could keep multiplying examples. We have to have markets. They are efficient distributors of necessary goods and services. Command economies such as in the old USSR don’t work and take great tyranny to even come close. But market forces by themselves are equally tyrannical. We must govern markets rather than let them govern us.

That may take individual wisdom, counter-consumerist education and values in churches, etc.–individual morality, as you say. But it will also collective curbs on the power of the markets.

The alliance of social conservatives, including most conservative Christians, with free market fundamentalists, is ironic–because NOTHING destroys the values that social conservatives love faster than unfettered market forces.

Wow, very concise and thoughtful statement on negative aspects of the market. His comment led me to make the post. Now, by doing this, I am not saying “You’re wrong and here’s why!” It is just that comments inspire posts, and by addressing them, my purpose is not to point out what’s wrong with their comments, but it is thoughts inspired by their comments.

Michael is right on many things here. Our society is individualistic (my words, not necessarily his). The idea of mutual exchanges and benefits are great when it comes to the markets. It is a bad way to approach life. The whole goal of Christianity is not to get tit for tat, but to give of ourselves unselfishly. We can start to see everything in selfish terms; what value is it to us? Whether it be our wife, children, friends…

Furthermore, capitalism can destroy relationships. How many men (and some women) work so hard to provide for their families, and in the process, neglect their families? How many people neglect their relationship with God to pursue the almighty dollar?

The comment about destroying mountains or forests for its economical value is a valid point as well. Some people believe that capitalism, while exploiting nature for resources, still favors the preservation of some nature. Whether or not that is true is the topic for another day. If this is not the case, then I think government has a valid role in preserving land, such as mountains or certain forests.

Michael did rightly call me on not reading the The Wealth of Nations, even though I don’t think he was addressing me directly. I have not read it, but I will put it on my list. I typically don’t use him as a source, since I don’t like the way he phrases things (“each pursuing our own rational self-interests”), for reasons beyond the scope here.

Advertising does produce an atmosphere of commercialism. Heck, it taints one of the most important holiday of the year (I would say Easter is on par with Christmas in terms of significance). Yes, we would probably be inclined to buy less stuff if people weren’t showing us shiny new things on TV. While some early capitalists may have not foreseen advertising, I think they would have seen it as an extension of salesmanship.

In a previous post, I expressed my concerns about capitalism, for some of the reasons mentioned above, and what Michael mentioned. After all, the idea behind capitalism is that if everyone pursues their own self-interests, the world will run smoothly.

I like to look at it a different way. To me, capitalism is essentially economic liberty. In a sense, a free market allows us to be greedy or to be charitable. Michael refers to the market as tyrannical, but I see it as people being tyrannical under a freer system. Under our economic system, we have seen much greed. At the same time though, our economic system produces a large amount of wealth. This wealth allows those who happen to be generous and wealthy to do a large amount of good. During the tsunami around the 2003/2004 crossover, the individual giving from the U.S. outweighed the U.S. government giving.

It is a similar situation with any other freedoms. I could go on countless hours talking about the things permissible under freedom of speech. There are things produced that directly blaspheme God, and blaspheme his creation. The beauty that is a Woman is being prostituted everyday, for one. I could go into countless other things.

Also, I believe that other economic systems have problems as well. I realize that critics of “unfettered market forces” do not believe in an outright rejection of capitalism, but I am just showing how different systems each have their own problems.

Capitalism can lead to reliance on self, other than God. Socialism can lead to reliance on government, rather than God. Abuse of capitalism leads to disintegration of the family structure. So does the European way. Dr. Morse of the Acton Institute notes

In addition to the high tax rates necessary to fund the social benefits, the labor regulations impose heavy costs on the young. Most European countries regulate wages and hours, requiring relatively high wages and mandating relatively low working hours. The European social model also requires employers to provide generous benefits such as health care, paid vacations, paid parental leave and the like.

These regulations and mandates have a negative impact on young workers by increasing the employers’ cost of hiring workers. The productivity of a skilled, experienced worker can justify this generous compensation package. But a young person, just starting out, may not produce enough to pay for the minimum required wage, much less the entire compensation package including health care, and paid time off. The result is that the young and the unskilled are less employable.

The high unemployment rate contributes to the delaying of marriage and child-bearing.
[…]
The system excludes those who are not skilled enough to be economically productive. But everyone begins their lives being not very economically productive. In practice, this means that the young are kept out of the labor market precisely at the time they are most biologically suited to begin forming families. It also means that those who are intrinsically poor, due to disability or low intelligence, are also excluded from participation in the labor market.

The welfare state has also contributed to the marginalization of marriage. Living with parents is not conducive to starting a family.
[…]

But this is not the only impact of the social assistance state on fertility and marriage. The life-time assistance of the state displaces the economic function of the family. The elderly don’t need adult children to support them in their old age. Women don’t need a husband to support them if they do have a child. Husbands become a nuisance, because the government will provide financial benefits without the inevitable difficulties of dealing with a flawed human being as a partner. In this environment, children become consumption goods, an optional life-style appendage to acquire only if one happens to enjoys children.

These economic subsidies to child-bearing have failed because they are attempting to replace the father. But economic security offered by taxpayers cannot replace the deeper support that a lifelong marriage can provide a woman and her children.

[…]
The social model has failed even in the cultural and social arena. For marriage is now considered optional for childbearing. Couples have a child first, see whether their relationship works, and then, perhaps, get married after the birth of their second child. High levels of social assistance make this casual attitude toward marriage possible.
[…]
Needless to say, a genuinely Christian social model would not have allowed itself to become so muddled about the meaning of something so basic as marriage. The combination of secularism, which discourages people from seeking meanings deeper than the material, and socialism, which attempts to satisfy the merely material needs, has led to this wide-spread social confusion.

This piece is not intended to convince anyone of anything, it is just primarily for myself. I’m sure anyone could blow holes on things that I say. I do not believe in materialism or commercialism, and I do not thing that idea of a “mutual exchange” is something that should be carried into other areas of life. Essentially, I believe in freedom, and I believe that capitalism is economic freedom. At the foundation of the free market are free exchanges. Is this post the best defense of such a system? I doubt it. For right now, I believe in freedom. I may come to find out that I am placing much to emphasis on freedom, that there should be more of a balance between security and freedom. Who said freedom is the highest goal? Right now, I do not know any better.

Now, that is not to say that capitalism should be completely laissez-faire. But I do believe in the idea of a mutual agreement between two parties to exchange goods or services. Should this be regulated somewhat to avoid potential abuses? Yes, to some extent. Just like freedom of speech is regulated to some extent. After all, you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded building.

Finally, as a compromise, I believe we can have a free market and still have a basic welfare system. If someone cannot afford a loaf of bread, I think it is better to have a welfare system that provides the money for the loaf of bread, rather than regulate the price of bread.

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2 Responses to “Capitalism, Hooray!!! Materialism, Boo!!!”

  1. Dan Trabue said

    You’ve given us a lot to think about here, and I am. My initial response is to this thought:

    “Essentially, I believe in freedom, and I believe that capitalism is economic freedom.”

    And I’m not certain how I’d frame it, but I think I’d be inclined to say that capitalism is economic freedom for some.

    The economic freedom to produce a product in the most cost-efficient manner while being able to sell it in the most profitable manner (is that an acceptable explanation of capitalist theory?) may be freedom for the person selling that widget, but it may involve a removal of freedom for others.

    An example might be the economic freedom of Ford to sell as many cars as possible comes at the cost of environmental/societal freedom for others.

    If Ford sells as many cars as possible (thanks to their liberty) and as many as possible people purchase them (thanks to their liberty), then the streets become more crowded/less safe and the air and water more polluted taking away freedom of pollutants and danger for others.

    And I know that you’re acknowledging there needs to be some balance, which I appreciate. My point is that I’m not sure that describing capitalism as economic liberty is apt.

  2. Chance said

    Yeah, at some point economic freedom buts up against other areas of life. I believe that regulations on Ford for pollution measures are necessary. What they would be, I do not know, as I am not versed in environmental matters. Such measures would be pro-freedom (not harming the air that people breathe) provided they are reasonable.

    As far as societal freedom, we’ve discussed this a little on your blog, where people who drive cars make some kind of agreement to put themselves at risk. And then you brought up pedestrians and cyclists.

    I see this issue as a balance of freedom vs. security. Think of terrorism. We have some measures in place to prevent terrorist acts, but at the same time we try to respect people’s civil liberties. In fact, Bush and others have been criticized for going too far to the security side. Of course, that does not mean terrorism is legal, because the punitive measures are still in place, but we restrain some of the preventative. I see it the same with unintentional actions. People who have accidents can still be fined, or jailed for criminal negligence. At the same time, we don’t ban cars, because their seems to be some implicit decision by the people to allow them. Maybe you don’t see the freedom to drive a car in the same way as freedom not to have your house randomly searched. Maybe the desire to drive a car is less noble, but that’s not my call.

    Also, I’m curious to see if the harm caused by vehicles outweigh the ills. Increasing technology saves lives, no doubt, but how much of it is directly related to vehicles, I am not sure.

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