Saturday, June 1, 2013

The real problem is materialism

It's pretty universally agreed that our world is in bad shape nowadays.  People of a more liberal persuasion blame capitalism.  If only as many resources were spent on raising children or protecting the environment as on advertising, they claim, the world would be a better place.

Conservatives blame feminism.  With all those women going to work instead of saying home with their kids, we shouldn't be surprised that society is falling apart in many ways, poverty is growing, and crime is rampant.

But maybe they're both wrong.  I mean, I am a feminist capitalist, and yet I think we could do better than we're doing, by a long shot.

The trouble, it seems to me, is more a question of priorities than of ideologies.  I can agree that the free market is the best way to serve our needs -- but that doesn't mean I am free to practice business in an unethical way.  I can agree that women should have equal opportunities at work, without saying that kids don't need to be taken care of.

Let's talk about capitalism first.  In our current free market, it is possible for business owners to practice their trades in ethical ways.  The trouble is that people don't think they have to do it.  If I have to hear the words "private vice is public virtue" one more time, I think I'll scream.  Vice is vice, virtue is virtue.

Okay, an example.  Say it is cheap to run a sweatshop in hazardous conditions, and more expensive to pay employees a just wage and give them a safe working environment.  Capitalism says the business owner should pick the cheaper option, right?

Wrong.  Capitalism says the business owner can choose what he wants to do.  And an ethical person would choose the ethical option.

Ah, but what if he wants to make money more than he wants to do the right thing?  Well, then the customers can pressure him.  They can refuse to buy the sweatshop clothes.  In this way they can make it much more expensive to use a sweatshop, because of the lost business.

But in order to make capitalism work, you have to be vigilant.  You have to take responsibility yourself.  And you cannot -- you must not -- say, "Well, that's the way the market works, I have nothing to do with it."  The market is not a person; it has no morals.  But you are a person, and you do have morals.

Business people do the wrong thing all the time, sadly.  They say things like, "This isn't a very good product, but I sell it because there's demand for it.  Not my fault if it breaks after a month."  Or, "I know I'm overcharging, but everyone else does it too."  Or, "Sure, there's no way they can live on this wage.  But if they agree to it, it must be good enough."  That is no way for a decent person to talk.  Read the social encyclicals, what they say about the unbridled market that sees people as mere numbers.

The fact is that as humans and as moral actors, material considerations shouldn't be the only things on our minds.  John was criticizing Chik-Fil-A years ago as uncapitalist.  He said that they aren't just selling a product, they are selling a feeling of self-righteouness.  Well, of course they are.  So is Starbucks, when they sell fair-trade coffee.  Why shouldn't we buy a product that serves our moral values as well as our material ones?

When capitalism is working, that's what happens.  We have the economic freedom to choose an ethical product or an unethical one; our job is to pick the ethical one.  When we don't do this, capitalism will result in injustice.

Meanwhile, feminism isn't the problem either.  It isn't primarily about mothers going to work while the kids are raised by the television.  Feminism is about giving women choices.  And the right choices are going to be ones that serve not only our own needs, but those of our families as well.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the only thing that is going to make things fair for women, allowing them to gt paid equally, use their talents equally, and get promoted equally .... is for men to step up and make their kids a priority too.  Women are penalized because they tend to be more family-oriented and put their kids before their careers.  But what if everyone put kids before careers?  What if it was expected that people didn't stay late at work because the kids need to be picked up at daycare ... and leaving at five was considered a responsible, appropriate thing to do?  What if pretty much everyone made an effort to take a career break when their kids were small?

Well, it would stop pitting women's needs against children's needs, for one thing.  Here is a great article about men doing just that: Men get serious about work-life balance.

The problem is not capitalism, and it's not feminism.  It's materialism.  When we put money or worldly respect over the needs of others, especially our families -- it does not matter what your economic system or ideology is.  Your system will be unjust, and it will fail.  We don't need a different ideology.  We need to put our priorities in the right place.  In short, we need to practice virtue.


Enbrethiliel said...


Your discussion about Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks reminds me of a lecture I watched recently on YouTube. The speaker's thesis was simple: "People don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it." Bascially, no one cares if you have the better product or not unless they also have a compelling reason to buy it.

I know relatively little about Chick-Fil-A's politics, but I am aware that they don't operate on Sundays. That appeals to me very much, and I could see myself going out of my way to give some business to a company with such a policy. Similarly, I often pay extra to buy food grown locally, because I believe in supporting our farmers. But it's not just the capitalist world which gives us examples . . .

Do you think I would have planted a single seed this year if you hadn't compared it to gambling? =P I didn't buy what you were doing for its own sake, but I totally bought that particular reason for doing it.

The radical idea of everyone putting kids before careers reminds me of a couple who were interviewed for a discussion on "working mothers" vs. "stay-at-home moms." (You're right that it's branded as merely a women's issue when it's actually a family issue.) The wife said she wanted to quit her job and stay home full time with the kids; she didn't care if they had to give up some material things. The husband said that there were a lot of non-material things that cost money but which were equally important, like the safety of a good neighbourhood.

I haven't drawn an insight out of that yet. You could say I'm still thinking about it, after all these years, but I thought I'd add it to the pot in case you had the brilliant comment that would finally help me get it. =)

Sheila said...

Chik-fil-A made a big splash this past year when they came out against same-sex marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage predictably organized a boycott, but the funny thing was that many religious people came out in droves in an "anti-boycott" to support them. It was considered virtuous all of a sudden to go get a chicken sandwich; people were posting on facebook that they had been there or were going there and encouraging others to "show their support."

I'm pretty sure CFA made a mint on the controversy. It had nothing at all to do with the sandwiches. But I'm okay with that; it's a way that people vote with their feet.

Gambling is another good example. Lotto tickets are not at all a practical way of making money. For the amount you spend for a ticket, your odds of any return on that investment are slim. But people don't buy a chance at making money. They buy the thrill of knowing it's possible. They buy something to daydream about.

As far as the working-vs.-staying home question, I think a sociologist would tell you that having a parent available probably makes a bigger impact than living in a nice neighborhood. On the other hand, if the schools are terrible, that could make a big difference. I guess I would tell the couple to list out their priorities, figure out which ones are real necessities, calculate how much *just* the necessities will cost, and do the math. Maybe the wife could switch to part-time, or a work-at-home job, to make up the difference.

In the current economic climate, we don't always have free choice of options. (And I HATE it when living on one income is seen as just a matter of giving up some luxuries. It is for us now, if you consider eating beef or buying new shoes to be luxuries, but it is a much bigger challenge for a lot of people.) So you kind of have to hack it a bit and see what works. Some couples actually choose to work opposite shifts (one days, one nights, or one weekdays, one weekends) so that the kids can always have a parent around. Others juggle a variety of at-home, part-time, or freelance work. (Or homesteading, which cuts costs directly and allows you to use the labor of at-home parents and children too.) And some choose to work one partner almost to death while the other stays home. It's hard. But it's a PRIORITY, you see? You do what you can. And if you can't manage to stay home at all, then you try to find the very best situation for childcare you can. A family member can be a great choice because then there's continuity. Or a nanny or home daycare that you know shares your values and has plenty of love to go around.

But what we really need is to fix our economy so it's even possible to live on one income for a majority of people. That's where my economic views relate to my social views.

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