These should be, to steal a line from Dickens, the best of times. Americans today live in bigger homes, drive better cars and enjoy more forms of entertainment than ever before.
But are we on the verge of becoming a childish nation, driven only by our desires? That’s what Benjamin Barber claims -- unpersuasively -- in the new book “Consumed.”
His thesis seems reasonable. “The tensions between easy and hard have challenged every society, but ours is perhaps the first in which the adult institutions of a civilization seem to be on the easy side of life,” Barber observes. “Ours rewards the easy and penalizes the hard,” he writes, and he’s got a point.
However, Barber spends the rest of his book attacking the very mechanism that’s made our success possible, and will allow us to deal with tomorrow’s problems as they arise: the market economy.
“Market philosophy is more than a threat to democracy, it is the source of capitalism’s most troubling problems today: its incapacity to satisfy the real needs of the poor and its tendency to try to substitute faux needs and manufactured wants for the missing real needs of consumers in developed societies,” Barber insists.
Yet it’s because of market capitalism that the poor are so well provided for, at least here in the U.S.
As poverty expert Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation puts it, “Most of America’s ‘poor’ live in material conditions that would be judged as comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago.” He finds that 43 percent of “poor” households own their own home. And 80 percent of those homes are air conditioned and roomy; only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded.
Barber insists that our capitalist system is determined to sell people things they don’t need, and that’s certainly true to some extent. But that’s only because our free-market system has already done such an amazing job of providing the things we do need.
For instance, no amount of advertising could have convinced a sharecropper in the 1920s to buy the latest phonograph until his rent was paid and his family fed and clothed. He was poor, and would always be poor. Yet today, free-market capitalism has delivered more housing, better food and cheaper clothing. People have so much disposable income that many “poor” Americans have enough to splurge on an iPod.
Sadly, capitalism isn’t as pervasive as Barber makes it out to be. “From where we stand now, social welfarism and its sources in the New Deal and Great Society appear to have run their course and the ideology of markets is dominant,” he insists. Don’t we wish.
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