Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How Much is Enough?

A dear friend asked me to read a paper she’s been working on and give her my reactions. That’s been my project today, but it’s a bit unsettling because I cannot wholeheartedly praise the paper, nor can I formulate a constructive suggestion for improving it.

Her argument is that people living in contemporary capitalist societies have become morally compromised by the . Not only are we inordinately concerned about buying and selling but we regard ourselves and others as commodities to be branded and favorably in order to achieve success.

Well, yes, that does happen — but to certain people more than others. My friend’s paper is depressing because it implies that the market runs everyone’s life, ineluctably so. Nor does she propose any solution. We are doomed to become less human every day, so long as we live in a society where almost all economic interactions are strictly commercial, rather than based on unmeasured or altruism.

This is not a new argument, but is almost a normal background assumption within discourse. Unfortunately, even leftists no longer have any notion what to put in place of , so the only future they can envision is a soulless, materialistic one where accomplishment consists only of commanding a high price on the market of humankind. I would feel depressed if I did not recall the message of my old professor, (see photo): People are not just driven by automatic,stimulus-response reactions. There is going on.

Nor are we just blindly driven by our culture, or by the advertising we see around us. We can think. Hallelujah – we can think! We interpret the nature of the stimuli around us, and may even check our own reactions to them. It is possible to live and work in a market-oriented society without losing one’s sense of proportion if one stops to think.

That’s reassuring since we’re not going to do away with the market, nor would I want to do so. It’s an essential way of allocating goods and resources according to the priorities of individual buyers. Even socialists recognize its usefulness these days. The question is, how do we live within a commercial system without losing our bearings? My friend does not attempt to answer that question.

And, indeed, it is a problem for everyone, since the market requires us to make relative comparisons, and when we start doing so, we adopt a logic with no inherent limits. When shopping we will naturally choose the comparatively best products that we can afford. The logic of shopping does not encourage anyone to choose items that are "good enough" without comparing them to the other items on offer. There is a strong tendency to carry such comparative methods of appraisal into other spheres of life, so that everything becomes invidious and everything is measured by its market value. The market value is always the aggregated appraisal of other people. I do know people who want to build up their “market value” so they can feel good about themselves. David Riesman would have called them "” contrasting them to “inner directed” people who don't get their values from others.

The moral challenge is to use the marketing logic when it’s appropriate (which it often is) but retain some other grounds for appraising value as well. That means having some internal standards of , rather than by making relative comparisons. For example, your body will inform you whether you are physically comfortable — whether you have enough. That’s a good criterion.

And as for judging one’s own success or failure, this requires one to know his own goals — which cannot be acquired properly by making comparisons. If you don’t have a sense of , you can’t get it by looking around you at the purposes of others. And if you do have a sense of vocation, you won’t care what the others around you are accomplishing — it’s only your own calling that will matter.

Tonight I watched a video of giving a talk about his “” theory to a public audience. He shows that the internet and electronic communications have created a platform enabling educated people all around the world to participate in the global economy and the global culture. India and China will catch up with the West — which he will certainly celebrate. We will have to get smart in order to lead in this new flattened world.

So a chap in the audience said he'd been traveling and saw people in Thailand who smiled a lot but owned very little. He wondered whether they might be happier than we are, with our computers and televisions. Joseph Stiglitz was on the panel too and he answered the fellow by saying that most people in the world live on less than $2 per day. It's pretty hard to be happy when you're that poor. Friedman too said that his promotion of this flat world is based on a moral concern for human well-being. Computers are making opportunities for people to overcome poverty.

I agree with Stiglitz and Friedman -- but only up to a certain point. There is research showing that money does make people happier -- but within limits. After you have your basic needs met, more money won't make you happier. Nor will it make you less happy. Much depends on what you do, given the amount of money you have. Up to some $10,000 per person per year, more money does help. Above that, maybe not. After your basic needs are met, after you have enough, then you have to know what to do with yourself. And that is a totally different set of challenges.

So I am not worried about living in a materialistic, market-oriented world. I have enough and I'm not looking for more, even if I can afford it. Other people can think too, thank goodness. Thank you, Herbert Blumer!



Anonymous rex said...

Instead of replacing capitalism with some other system, let's just replace irresponsible capitalism with responsible capitalism!

9:30 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Not a bad idea, Rex. That's a pretty good way to put it.

3:03 PM  

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