Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thanks for capitalism

To mark the approach of Thanksgiving weekend William Watson has penned an excellent column, "Giving thanks for capitalism":
... Maybe in the end material circumstances are not important. Maybe poverty would not prevent spiritual wealth. Maybe if we were poorer, we'd be happier, or more fulfilled. Most of us seem unwilling to take that chance, however. Thanks to the effort of those who came before us, thanks to our own efforts, we don't have to take that chance.
... Life might be better all round if as a species we weren't acquisitive. But we do seem to be acquisitive. And it has brought hundreds of millions of us to a standard of living that while probably pitiful by the standards of the future is astounding by the standards of the past.
... Excessive acquisitiveness we usually call "greed." Critics of capitalism, from Marx to Moore, see it as a system founded on greed. Acquisitiveness and self-interest are clearly key to capitalism. But is most people's acquisitiveness really excessive? Is the desire to work hard, to save and to better oneself really "greed"?
... who's to say what's excessive? One man's obsession is another man's passion. We admire obsession in sports, entertainment and the arts. [And let’s not forget science and the obsessions of people like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman.]
... The only place such obsession is regarded as hurtful or evil is business. Outside business it's regarded as "dedication."
... some participants in capitalism probably are motivated by "greed." But the acquisitiveness that motivates the rest of us is normal and healthy and something we should be thankful for.


Xanthippa said...

I love Richard Feynman!

But, to the point...

Acquiring things - the desire to do so and the actual doing so - is a survival technique. My great-grand-mother lived through BOTH World Wars (as in, in the middle, not watching it from the other side of the Globe).

She never threw anything away.

She would even save empty cartons from sugar and flour - because you never knew when another war would come and these might come in handy for something.... OK - it looked peculiar. But, given her life experience, it kind of made sense.

Now, please, consider that OUR experience - living our lives in relative peace and prosperity - is NOT the NORM!!! Really, it is not usual - if one looks at the history of the human race. So, is the compulsion to 'acquire' and 'save up' stuff really as illogical a trait as our current circumstances make it seem?

OK - we have gone soft. And, we are often 'acquiring' for the sake of 'acquiring' - not because of any conscious effort to prepare ourselves for leaner times. My point is, however, that the impulse itself is an evolutionary mechanism, and important one that helped us survive till now.

Plus, we have taken the very impulse which helped us survive and adapted it into one which improves our standard of living. Let's face it - without the consumer, wishing to acquire the best and the latest, there would not be the progress in technology and rise in living standard that we have come to see as 'natural'!

Disparaging this very useful and important impulse seems rather disrespectful to our ancestors, isn't it?

JR said...

All you say is true. This time and place we live in is not the norm but far better than most, if not all. And as you (and Watson) say this is thanks to our naturally aquisitve nature - something to be accepted, valued and exploited rather than disparaged.

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