Living in a Material World


A Washington Post piece on high-ticket consumption includes a quotation from an anthropologist who believes that "competitive consumerism may be an evolutionarily adaptive behavior". So… does that mean humanity is just a stepping stone from the chimpanzees to the Fab Five?

Quoted repeatedly is consumer culture paean peddler James Twitchell, who's written for Reason here and here. Also Robert Lane, in the "you can't buy happiness" camp.

I'm pretty sure that you can buy at least small doses of happiness. (No, no, not those doses… although… that too.) But do I have to turn in my libertarian decoder ring if the thought of people blowing $5g on handbags while a couple billion people remain in absolute poverty turns my stomach just a bit?

NEXT: Coase Encounters of the Third-Party Kind

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  1. whether you can or can’t “buy” happiness is not the relevant question – the freedom to find out for yorself is.

  2. It is sad that a billion people remain in absolute poverty. It is my hope that we can teach them by example how to make their own $5,000 handbags. (and here’s a hint: it ain’t by regulation, taxation or charity).

  3. I can see how it turns your stomach. Mine too. So do crappy music and sweater jackets.

  4. turn in the ring, Sanchez.

  5. You’re still a libertarian as long as you don’t want to make it illegal.

    But you also may wanna remember that enterprise, including exploiting rich tastes and fat wallets, is the best chance for raising those in poverty out of it.

    And you may also wanna consider that your own tastes and buying habits may seem gaudy and outlandish and wasteful to some. Where could we ever draw a line between good and bad consumption?

  6. fyodor-
    Certainly not; I’d have already turned in the ring if I did. And I doubt there’s any clear line. I just hope that if I’m ever in a position to be seriously considering picking up fashion accessories with 4-digit pricetags, I start feeling some sort of pangs of obligation to other human beings. Unlike the commenter above, I’m not convinced that well-targeted charity, (funding education in the developing world, say) as opposed to mere cash handouts, is necessarily futile.

  7. Reminder – money is not wealth. When they add up the wealth of a country, they don’t count money. If you blow 5g on a handbag, nothing bad has happened. All the wealth that existed still exists.

    You lose wealth when a house burns down.

    The 5g and the handbag do have something to do with incentive, though. That has a link to wealth creation. “Fixing it” probably has a link to wealth destruction. That’s just the perverse way things go. There’s the difference between right and left wing for you.

  8. In order to surmise that market economies create increasing unhappiness – one has to ask whether “consumerism” and the pursuit of identity through aquisition of material objects is a distinguishing characteristic of market economy.

    I don’t think it is. There is nothing inherent in the “trader” principle that manifests attaching identity to objects and thereby giving birth to rampant consumption as a means to improve one’s own self image and the identity they think they project towards others through possession of those objects.

    To gain identity through objects – without the consciousness that those objects value can always be out done is clearly the culprit for much unhappiness.

    It’s too easy to blame “capitalism” (it would be nice to even have real capitalism to blame for once) and market based economy for the unhappiness when the premise to blame isn’t even an inevitable result of either.

    There’s nothing in inherant in capitalism or market economy that encourages the attainment of personal identity through aquisition of material things. This is the mistaken premise accepted almost a priori by nearly every critic of market economy.

  9. Julian Sanchez:

    You are hereby ordered to report to the Office of Ideological Conformity at 0800 for invasive brain examinations and intensive indoctrination. At this time you will be required to surrender all libertarian credentials, including any and all Ayn Rand novels in your possession. After a probationary period your libertarian credentials will be returned. Any signs that you care about something other than guns and taxes will be deemed grounds for permanent expulsion from The Order.

    Remember, if we don’t all march in perfect lock-step with the same opinions then we obviously don’t care about freedom! 😉

  10. There may be some degree of “evolutionary adaptation” happening here. In the days of cavemen, there was competition among males to build the best shelter, or to be able to provide the best/most amount of food, or to be able to best protect one’s offspring from attack. Evolution says that females would be motivated by survival instincts to pick the males that can best do these things.

    Today, there is still competition going on. Only the competition has gone from cavebuilding to handbag purchasing. Oh, and the competitors in question are competing for male affection instead of female.

  11. Yeah. I’ll second the sick stomach feeling. I was flipping through Robb’s Report today. $10k for a pen. What’s the point?

  12. Anybody ever consider trying “Libertarian Lite?” I’ll admit, I consider myself a Libertarian not so much because I agree with all of its tenets, but because I disagree with Libertarians less often than with other political philosophies. But I have long thought that pure, free-market libertarianism would fail for the same reason Communism failed: a too-high opinion of human nature. Communism would work beautifully, if only people would ignore their own self-interests and strive toward the common good. Of course, this will never happen.

    Likewise, it seems to me that pure libertarianism assumes that people would always act based on reason and rationality, rather than spite or superstition or any of the other more ignoble emotions. There is an old Bonanza episode where Telly Savalas plays an evil billionaire who wants Lorne Greene to sell him the Ponderosa. Lorne refuses, so Telly pulls various nasty (but legal!)tricks, including buying every store in the area and refusing to sell any food to Lorne and the family. A true libertarian, I think, would have to say that Telly has the right to buy every store in Nevada and refuse to sell to his enemies. And that, in a nutshell, is why complete free-market Libertarianism would probably not work. Also why Libertarian candidates can’t win most elections, because most voters would ally themselves with Lorne Greene over Telly Savalas in this case. There will always be situations where people try to hurt others not for gain, but simply because THEY CAN.

    In an earlier posting on a different thread I compared Libertarianism to 24-karat gold, which is too soft to work with unless you mix it with base metal first. I’ll admit the metaphor is overblown, but I stand by it regardless.

  13. Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer…

    You can’t come here and question the notion of ideological purity. If you do you might find yourself hustled off to the Office of Ideological Conformity alongside Julian Sanchez.

    I don’t see anything that could possibly go wrong if the country was run purely according to a perfect set of postulates that require no independent thought or judgement because all decisions can be derived from these postulates using pure logic. I mean, what could possibly go wrong if a nation was run purely according to ideology rather than common sense, practicality, and compromise?

    It’s always cute when people say “I like a lot of your ideas but I don’t agree 100%, so maybe you should be a little more open to people who agree for the most part but don’t share in your ideological conformity.” They really, honestly think that they can be cool like us with some sort of half-way effort. Sorry, but the only way to achieve a free society is if everybody is in complete and perfect agreement on all things. There can be no room for dissent in our efforts to build a free society.

    What? Why is everybody looking at me? Irony? What irony? 😉

  14. Thoreau-

    Well, usually when I post something like this I get a lot of ad hominem attacks comparing me to various Stalinesque members of the reptile family. But your response (and some wine) has emboldened me to come right out and say this: I am not completely opposed to the notion of government oversight of various industries, either! Nor do I assume that taxation is inherently bad; it’s just the regulations and taxes we have now that bother me.

    But seriously, I do think libertarians, and the forces of Good in general, would be far more successful if we’d put pragmatism before purity. Such a shame my checkered past prevents me from running for office.

  15. Thoreau,

    Can you hold the sarcasm down to a paragraph or 2? And maybe just one sarcastic post on the same thread? Just a thought….

    Jennifer A.,

    “Pure” libertarianism does not assume people will act reasonably all the time. But, I think most libertarians would point out that, excluding non-violent drug offenders, gamblers, etc, the number of violent criminals is pretty small. Private security forces and insurance companies could do the same thing as government protection, only more efficiently and without being funded by coercion (taxes).

    And do we not have murder, rape, theft, and the like now? I don’t see the state eliminating these things anytime soon.

    Here’s an article I was looking at earlier that sort of illustrates my argument:

  16. Matt- Of course we have murder et al. right now, and I do not believe these evils inherent to human nature will ever be eradicated by any political or religious system. Nor do I believe that a completely unregulated free market will solve all evils facing us today, and I do believe they will lead to greater injustices. Meanwhile, a private police force would help only those who can afford to pay. I would rather pay a reasonable tax than live in a world where well-meaning charities have to hold fund-raisers in order to prosecute the murder of an unknown transient, or see Sally Struthers on TV whining, “Julia was raped last night, but if she pays to get the sonofabitch then her children will have no food.”

    Even the most libertarian of sports fans agree that there needs to be an impartial referee with no economic interest in the outcome of the game. Likewise, the referee himself must follow certain rules. I believe that to some extent this is true of any society, because otherwise the nastier elements of human nature will allow the strong to miserably exploit the weak, even if the weak can in theory manage to get justice on their own.

  17. The mistake many people make when considering formal libertarian ideas is that they consider them as they’d happen overnight. Elect a libertarian and all of the sudden the police force disapears etc…

    In reality – social liberty on the grand scale imaginged by most libertarians can only emerge over time. A long time. Our current mixed system did not happen overnight – and it cannot be reversed overnight.

    Wide scale liberty can only emerge from a society whose fundamental beliefs are liberty rather than statist based. This is the tough part because we are very much a product of the system we seek to change. Most of us went to government schools and deal with government rules in our jobs – the state is so enfused into society and our lives we don’t see it – it simply is the “way it is” and that makes it hard to imagine society moving away from state centered life without all civilization falling apart.

    We also tend to think about our current behavior in our current state centered context and abstract it to place it in an imaginged libertarian context. This is a mistake. Our current behavior is molded by the system we were raised and live in – there’s no reason to believe it would not change as the system itself changes.

  18. Forgot to add that I also believe the amount of regulation and taxation should be far different, and less, than they are now.

  19. To me, libertarianism is about believing in the supremacy of individual liberty.

    There’s nothing wrong with frowning on how other people make use of that liberty, so long as you don’t actually infringe on it yourself.

  20. Amen Dan…I nominate Dan to lead the Order…give him Julian’s ring

  21. Does liberty include the right to use free-market advantages to hurt others? For example, to update the earlier Bonanza reference: suppose I have enough money to go to New Hampshire and buy every single food and drug store in the state. Then I decree that no libertarians are allowed to buy food, medicine or clothing from my stores, which means nowhere in New Hampshire or adjoining areas. Granted, I’ll lose a ton of money, but I do not care, because I am a spiteful person who wants to get back at the libertarians who were mean to me on Hit and Run postings. Or maybe I’m a cunning person, who wants to force all the Free State Project libertarians to sell me their homes at low prices. Perhaps I’ll make a nice profit.

    SHould the law allow anyone to do this? I do not believe so.

  22. OK jennifer.

    So you go buy every single drugstore in the state. As rediculous as that sounds, lets assume it happens. How long do you think it is before a competitor comes in and begins selling drugs and/or medicine to people? I’d say with the masssive profits they could earn…not very long. Or, you could buy them of the internet.
    Ah they joys of a free market….

  23. Jennifer,

    In regard to your 8:56 post, how do you know the taxes your paying for police/protection are “reasonable?” The government police are a monopoly, with very little competition. Therefore, they have very little incentive to be efficent and serve customers as well as possible (No, I’m not insinuating cops don’t care about protecting people).

    In a free market bad service or service that is too costly will be punished, unlike in government. Just like in other industries, bad security providers will be put out of business and good will one’s will be rewarded with more customers and higher profits.

  24. Jennifer-

    Careful in your use of hypotheticals. There are libertarians who will argue vehemently that you should have the right to own weapons-grade plutonium. Your example is equally useless because it has little bearing on reality.

    Consider your case, involving (presumably) an argument in favor of anti-trust and anti-discrimination laws in at least some circumstances. Whether or not a repeal of ALL such laws would be good, who cares? It won’t happen soon, so let’s just target the ones that cause the most problems with the fewest (if any) benefits.

    Or weapons-grade plutonium: I suppose a 2nd amendment absolutist could get all bent out of shape over his inalienable right to possess the ability to wipe out millions of people. Bully for him. I’m more interested in the way that gun laws have created more expense and red tape without significantly impacting the crime rate.

    But here’s our problem: If we try to work within a libertarian movement, we’ll be surrounded by extremists who insist on the whole kit and kaboodle right away. Not to mention various druids, people with blue skin, etc.

    If we try to work within the Republicrats, we’ll be surrounded by people who want to repeal all business regulations except the one that his donor is benefiting from (because it hurts his competitors more than it hurts him).

    What we need is a sane but honest libertarian-style party. One that won’t say “we want less government except when a little more government will help our cronies” but also won’t say “we are absolute purists who think that ‘compromise’ is a 4-letter word.” You know, an honest but electable party.

    Alas, it won’t happen.

  25. “SHould the law allow anyone to do this?”

    The more relevant question seems to me to be: Does the law need to prevent anyone from doing this?

    Given that you’re postulating a malevolent person with enough resources to obtain a perfect monopoly position, the scenario is so unlikely as to ever come up in a free market that it unlikely ever needs addressing. Also, if your monopolist is deliberately not serving a significant portion of the consumers, someone will come in and take up the slack. He cannot keep buying up potential competitors forever. To my mind, the situation is self-correcting in the end anyway.

    However, if your spiteful monopolist is legally prevented from using the market to hurt enemies, should not other people? What about NAACP organized boycotts, or Teamster strikes? Should the use of these market advantages be made illegal as well?

  26. Wow … “reality” up there just said that human nature can be shaped by our political system. That’s what this means, right?

    “Our current behavior is molded by the system we were raised and live in – there’s no reason to believe it would not change as the system itself changes.”

    That’s a pretty dangerous idea.

  27. “Private security forces and insurance companies could do the same thing as government protection”

    I believe Afghanistan had pretty well entirely privatized law enforcement before the Taliban took over.

  28. So Dan, who’s now the leader of the order, sez: “There’s nothing wrong with frowning on how other people make use of that liberty, so long as you don’t actually infringe on it yourself.”

    So Dan is willing to tolerate criticism of the more grotesque deformities of the capitalist system. How nice. Notice, however, that there is absolutely now indication that he supports such criticism.

    For people who advocate peaceful, non-coercive solutions to social problems, libertarians spend remarkably little time advocating for such solutions – as opposed to sanctimoniously declaring their ethical superiority.

  29. uhh victor:

    Unless you count the mujahideen’s islamic state as “privatized law enforcement” then I think you’re mistaken.

  30. Ah, but comparing an NAACP boycott to refusal to sell to particular customers is a different side of the coin; it’s one thing to refuse to sell a needed service or commodity to people; it’s another thing for people to refuse to buy it. I do not believe you should be required to shop at a particular store; however, I do think a store should be required, by law if necessary, to treat customers equally in most regards, while at the same time being able to discriminate in other ways. Racial discrimination no; dress codes yes. (You can choose how to dress; you can’t choose your race.) Also, there is a difference between, say, going on strike to protest unsafe working conditions versus me trying to destroy you because you pissed me off.

    Human nature is imperfect and it is not possible to invent a philosophy or a system that will be entirely free of injustice. Surely you don’t expect to come up with a system that will work equally well in all situations? Something with no gray areas, and nothing that needs to be considered case-by-case? The public schools tried that, and got zero-tolerance policies that expel kids for possession of Advil or asthma inhalers.

    Also, while I do not wish to make specious comparisons between free-market purism and Communism, I will point out that, to judge by this post, they do appear to share one thing in common–the idea that once the proper political and economic systems are in place and people have time to grow accustomed to them, human nature itself will alter so that the need for an overriding authority will fade away. If Marx considered capitalism the cause of all human evil, does this mean Libertarians blame the lack of an unregulated market?

    The police do not have a complete monopoly on crime control; people are usually free to hire private detectives and private security agents, and I oppose most attempts to take this right away. But a free-market court system? Free-market trial by jury? Private ownership of prosecuting attorneys?

    I do not deny that the system as it is now is utterly corrupt, and that a lot of current problems would be solved by application of free-market principles. But at the same time, it appears to me that a lot of the people on this posting are basically saying “The fact that (Insert system here) is imperfect proves that the system should be abolished” when instead it might merely need to be reformed.

    Again, I am not trying to start a serious argument, nor attempt to tear down the Sacred Pillars of Libertarianism, but no workable philosophy can be completely cut-and-dried; there will always be gray areas, whereas pure libertarianism (or any pure philosophy, for that matter) insists that all is black and white.

    Can’t the idea of the unregulated market be modified, as necessary? Other ideas have. For example: for the most part adults have the right to free access to public places. This is good and should not be changed. But then, you had the “stalkers” who abused this freedom to harass others.

    Instead of my New-Hampshire-stores situation, suppose that instead I decide to track you down via this post and stalk you. Never actually cause you physical damage, but unless you stay in your house with the curtains drawn you see me everywhere you look. And since I have not actually threatened you, you can’t do much to really defend yourself. But it’s bullshit to say that you should have to put up with this.

    So in this case the rule that adults should have free access to public places needs to be modified, at least in relation to me and your whereabouts. Granted, anti-stalking laws have flaws. You could be the spiteful one instead, and make a false claim against me. After all, no system created by humans is perfect. But overall, the net amount of damage done by the people who make false claims (before they’re caught and punished) is less then the damage done in the bad old days when victims of stalking had no legal recourse. Therefore I support the anti-stalking laws, though I admit they need constant oversight to avoid hurting innocent people. It’s a lot of work, but no machine, political or otherwise, can be just set in motion and then not need tending evermore.

  31. Steve in CA – I said “behavior” not “human nature”.

  32. jennifer,

    Basically, I view libertarianism as the only consistent and coherent political as well as ethical philosophy. Of all the systems ever devised by humans it seems to me free market exchange has produced the greatest freedom and liberty while statism in all its forms takes away from this. My basic philosphy is “anything the government does the market does or could do better.”

    But its been a good discussion…enjoyed it. I’m off to watch the rest of monday night football. Have a good night.

  33. “… blowing $5g on handbags turns my stomach…”

    Reminds one of that old ‘The Fox and the Sour Grapes’ story (Aesop, if I’m not mistaken)

    But, of course, we would live in a perfect world, if only the people who have money spended it that way the people who don’t have money would do if they had it.

  34. Jennifer you are so full of analogies!

    As per your latest, in a pure libertarian society there would be no public property so any stalkers could potentially be trespassing or something. Also about monopoly vs free-market police forces remember the ones we have and pay for now unfairly support the rich (they have most of the property). The poor could potentially get by with much less police support of certain kinds and would be benifitted by the support paid for by kind shopkeeps and the more-wealthy.

    As for a purely free-market court system it is not so ridiculous, many of our kind support it theoretically. I won’t get into a full explanation because of space and my own intelligence limitations, but I would HIGHLY reccomend Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manefesto. It is at some libraries or quite cheap on the internet (hey I’d even send you my copy!) and it answers pretty much every question you’ve asked and more very thoroughly (whether you believe them or not is of course up to you).

  35. Jennifer:

    History has shown that it is virtually impossible to swallow up all sources of a good and set predatory prices, or to otherwise “manipulate” the free market in ways that reduce prosperity and choice in the long run. No one can or should claim perfection within a free market in the short run, as human beings have limited information, flaws, etc.

    There is no need to speculate about extreme cases, because we don’t reside in that world. We reside in a world where the costs of entry to most markets is falling, perhaps even approaching the negligible, so the antitrust concerns of the past are increasingly going to be in the past.

    On the other hand, I do think there remain important discussions among free-marketeers about the proper scope of governmental involvement in the economy (I’m not an anarchist, so I believe taxes are not only necessary but morally defensible when used to perform legitimate governmental functions). For example, most (but not all) libertarians would argue that in addition to forbidding force in human relations, a legitimate government would police fraud. Once you start defining fraud, though, things get sticky. And once you decide whether to police fraud, you have to choose the means — courts only, case by case, or some kind of regulatory structure for industries (such as insurance) where a fraud perpetrated today may impose costs far in the future when the defrauder is long gone.

    Libertarianism is not a theology and it’s not a political party. Or as Edith Efron once put it in the 1970s, in Reason, “Libertarianism isn’t an imaginary world; it isn’t a bible; it isn’t a spiritual state; it isn’t a chastity belt. It is a compass.”

    A great essay, well worth reading today, by the way, and she was responding to an attack on libertarians in National Review (sound familiar):

  36. Charity, in terms of beneficial effect on individual lives, is only part of the picture when it comes to helping people in the developing world. The other, vastly more efficient methods of helping people help themselves (such as the MoneyMaker pump: also require investments of money along with human energy and initiative.

  37. “suppose I have enough money to go to New Hampshire and buy every single food and drug store in the state. Then I decree that no libertarians are allowed to buy food, medicine or clothing from my stores, which means nowhere in New Hampshire or adjoining areas. Granted, I’ll lose a ton of money, but I do not care, because I am a spiteful person who wants to get back at the libertarians who were mean to me on Hit and Run postings. Or maybe I’m a cunning person, who wants to force all the Free State Project libertarians to sell me their homes at low prices. Perhaps I’ll make a nice profit. ”

    If you want to be bitch-slapped by your own invisble hand, go right ahead.

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