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.
In fact, it’s the social welfare state that’s growing by leaps and bounds. By the time Congress finishes reauthorizing the SCHIP program, for example, even middle-class children will be on the dole, eligible to receive government-supplied health insurance.
Barber even manages to blame the free market for problems caused by the government. About Hurricane Katrina he writes, “Only in an advanced market society already privileging private philanthropy and market voucher programs would [President Bush’s] preference for religious philanthropy and housing voucher approaches have any legitimacy at all in responding to a public disaster on this scale.”
But it was government organizations that failed (FEMA with its rusting, unoccupied trailers) while private charities such as Habitat for Humanity built homes. In fact, government red tape kept the private sector from being more effective. While Habitat for Humanity built 6,000 homes in Asia in the year following the 2005 tsunami, it expected to take two years to build 1,000 homes along the Gulf coast. A big reason for the difference is government-mandated building codes.
“The market had already played a role in weakening New Orleans’s defenses against category-five hurricanes,” Barber also insists. For example, “safety standards for levees had been pushed aside as too expensive or circumvented by corruption.”
But if the levees had been built by private companies working on a for-profit basis, those companies would have had every reason to build them well. It’s because the levees were left in government hands that lawmakers were able to divert money away from them toward pork-barrel projects.
The best way to improve post-hurricane New Orleans would have been to make it into a free-enterprise zone with low taxes and minimal government interference. Instead, Washington has poured more than $130 billion into the area -- and has little to show for it.
“Privatization, whether of education, housing or social security, makes us less of a public,” Barber writes. But that’s exactly wrong. When citizens are responsible for educating their own children, when they own their homes and when they control their investments they’re forced to behave as responsible adults. When they can allow the government to teach them, house them and provide their retirement, they have no reason to set aside childish behavior.
Things are good, and getting better -- specifically because of the international growth of the free market.