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Capitalism, the Market, the ‘Underclass,’’ and the Future by Barry Schwartz in Nov/Dec1999 Society pp.33-42

“I would like to give her more. I would like to promise her that she will grow up with a sense of her cousins and of rivers and of her great-grand mother’s teacups, would like to pledge her a picnic on a river with fried chicken and her hair uncombed, would like to give her HOME for her birthday, but we live differently... I give her a xylophone and a sundress[.]”

--Joan Didion


Enough good ideas exist in Barry Schwartz’s works to make one good book. That book, unfortunately, does not exist, but this article does. Not only do power markets increase selfishness, Schwartz argues, they emphasize short-term selfishness. (Has anyone heard an ideologue argue that oil extractors should be given subsidized oil in public land, but not right now because future generations will need the oil more and will benefit from the oil more?) Trash culture values, whether underclass or other class, are power market values. Nike harmed individual moral development more than Richard Rorty. Marketers sell conscious and unconscious ideals as well as products. Power market promotion of novelty and diversion damages commitments to worthy endeavors.


Most individuals journey through their lives without taking college classes from relativists, yet individuals absorb millions of messages from the mass media. Almost no school warns about the destruction wrought by credit card debts. Gambling and over consumption of legal drugs gets little attention from any curriculum.


Like communism, socialism and dictatorships, power markets encourage free riding. Trickery and threats of punishment by powerful individuals become methods of keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo. Thinking primarily of economic costs and benefits to the self, has hidden costs, especially in moral actions and reasoning.


The “everybody does it” and “I have to do it” excuses proliferate. A Gresham’s Law of Power Markets operates: Immoral actions drive out moral actions. Milton Friedman’s commandment that profit outweighs all else becomes both a legal and moral imperative for marketers. Studies suggest that most CEOs and MBA students believe almost anything now legal is morally just, and should stay legal--except, of course, laws that violate power market ideology. Most of us are capitalists. We should ask what types of capitalists should we be, and what do power markets do to us?


For power markets--or almost any markets--to work, individuals must possess bourgeois values and numerous other values. Many possessing these traits, however, labor to produce products that destroy these traits (thrift, flexibility, and industriousness) in their more manipulable fellow citizens--following philosophies of “Success is doing whatever you want,” and “No blood, no foul.”



Gangs and warlords seize capital by predation, but so do power markets, especially from parents, children, and the unborn, requiring adherence to contracts never agreed to, including federal debts, trade debts and retiree benefits.       


Many potential reasons exist why power markets decrease happiness:

·        Relentless trivia and trickery.

·        Trivial alternative overload.

·        Loss of friendships and family ties.

·        Passivity inducing products.

·        Emphasis on status.


Reasons why power markets could increase happiness also exist, however:

·        Power markets root out depressing individuals, and greater exposure to happier people might increase happiness. (For example, depressing pundits get axed while perky pretty people fill the airwaves.)

·        Groupthink: Happy people create pressure to be happy.

·        Being unhappy is equated with having a psychological problem or character defect.


Character, however, matters much more than happiness. Power markets produce better character than socialism, but not adequate character.



Article review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 23, 2009.


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