Outside the Asylum
Capitalism has a catechism. We've all heard it. Like most catechisms, it exists to define orthodoxy and silence dissent. It's one of my goals to take apart the great statements capitalism makes about itself and make each the subject of an essay. But first, let's look at the idea of the catechism itself.
There are a whole lot of reasons why capitalism is better than every other alternative, to such a great degree that there really are no viable alternatives to capitalism. We get told these reasons when we're young, and are reminded of them as adults whenever we make a criticism of our society or disagree with somebody important. These reasons could be loosely described as The List of Why We Can't Have Nice Things, but for the formality and gravitas with which they're deployed, as if the person speaking them were Moses on the mountain.
One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is:
You can't create demand.
Feel the authority of that, the solidity. The person speaking might as well be Einstein saying "You can't create or destroy energy," or your Mom saying "You can't flap your arms and fly." The fact that, not only can one create demand, but there is a multi-billion-dollar industry designed to do just that (it's called marketing), makes no dent in the graven tablet held close in the arms of the nineteen-year-old Republican college student debating me (we were friends in high school, before he went to UVA and came back even further to the right than he was when he left).
If you mention the existence of marketing, this person talks about vibrating toilet seats. Vibrating toilet seats prove that marketing has no influence on people, and that advertisements are sort of like a kiosk in an airport. Like someone looking for the right gate to board his airplane, the prospective consumer needs to know where to go to satisfy his pre-existing wants, and, like a televised information desk, advertisements provide that service. No manipulation is happening; the market is driven by, nay, created by, the desires of consumers. It's populist (sort of), at least as long as a large enough percentage of the people are actually able to buy anything. Vibrating toilet seats prove this fact, because they were promoted in advertisements and failed. You see? It really is the desires of the masses that drive the market!
Unfortunately, the fact that indoctrination occasionally fails to work, as when the establishment attempts to sell vibrating toilet seats, or Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, doesn't mean that demand, like energy, can be neither created nor destroyed. The market is not determined by the desires of prospective buyers--at least not the bottom 80% of prospective buyers--and advertisements are not designed to be informational, but persuasive. But you can't argue with the catechism. Its adherents believe in it with total confidence, and you'd better believe in it too, or you will find yourself counted among the troublemakers and the insane.
But back to the idea of the catechism itself. Isn't it interesting that capitalism needs this list of precepts handy, like a flyswatter on the porch? Why are there so many flies around here? Could they be attracted to the rotting corpse on the porch? Certainly not. There is nothing rotten in the state of Denmark. We just need another flyswatter. More and better flyswatters!
Maybe the reason capitalism has to have a list of justifications at its elbow is that capitalism doesn't look very good at first glance. It is, after all, the philosophy or practice which regularly justifies slave labor, mass imprisonment, poverty, poisoned water, starving children, and oil wars. The uninitiated might mistake it for a cruel, sociopathic force with no moral compass and a prodigious body count. It's a good thing we have a catechism, isn't it?
Today, inspired by Joe Biden, I'd like to look at one of the pillars of capitalism's catechism: the notion of quality.
“We’ll make sure it’s not quality, we’ll make sure it’s only affordable.”
--Joe Biden on health insurance
The notion of quality in capitalism is very similar, but not identical to, the concept of merit. Merit applies to people; quality applies to goods and services. However, both work the same way. The basic idea is that there is a scarce resource, and many people (companies, nations, etc.) competing for it. The result? The cream rises to the top.
As competitors strive to gain the dollars of prospective customers, they try to outshine each other by creating better and better products and services. The shoemaker who makes the best shoes will get more customers than the shoemaker who makes worse shoes. He will then become more successful and prosperous than his competitor, showing that he is a person of merit. Please note that in this vision of capitalism, all other factors have been invisibly made equal, their effect zeroed out. For instance, it's not harder to get to one of the shoemakers than the other. Time and space have no bearing on the matter. Further, one shoemaker does not charge more than the other, or if he does, that has no impact on sales because all potential customers magically have the amount of money necessary to support his good shoes, and enable him to make more of them. Customers always have free choice. It's written right here on this big stone tablet.
You don't, for instance, have a large crowd of people who can't afford good shoes and buy crap from the crappy shoemaker because it's all they can afford. Neither do you admit to any problem with, shall we say, ingredients. Somehow the skill and ingenuity of the craftsman is supposed to make up for the fact that better shoes are made out of better materials, and better materials tend to cost more than inferior ones. So the guy making handcrafted shoes out of Italian leather is going to make better shoes than the guy working on a factory line making shoes out of the leavings of petroleum processing, just like the guy hand-carving a solid wood bookcase will end up (assuming equal levels of competence) with a better bookcase than the guy slotting together pre-punched particle board pieces. Massive numbers of people are not going to flock to the Italian cobbler and the Amish woodworker, however, regardless of how wonderful their products are. In fact, you might almost say that massive numbers of people will eschew the two superior craftsmen they create a high-quality product. In a capitalist world, a high-quality product is a high-price product, and a high-price product, by definition, is something that can be afforded only by a minority of the population.
The lower the quality, the lower the price. And that's just talking about raw resources. We haven't even gotten into labor yet.
How about the fact that it takes longer to hand-craft a pair of shoes than to stamp one out on a factory line? How is the meritorious cobbler supposed to make a living when he can only serve one customer while a factory down the road is serving thousands? How is the trained gourmet chef supposed to make a living when McDonald's is down the road. They have billions served; he doesn't, and can't. What can he do?
The answer of course, is that he can provide quality to a considerably smaller clientele, who can afford high prices.
So quality is not something that capitalism maximizes or promotes. Quality is something that capitalism makes scarce. Capitalism makes the production and possession of quality goods more difficult, and less likely, rather than the reverse. If quality is the destination, capitalism is the roadblock, the closed (or maybe broken) bridge. And that's leaving out the existence of the troll under the bridge. What I've been criticizing here is vanilla capitalism, capitalism as it's supposed to function according to the descriptions of its adherents. I've not been discussing capitalism as we experience it daily, with its array of cartels and company stores, and its ever-present entourage of professional liars.
Ironically, the only way capitalism could do what it claims to do, and promote quality, is if it became a mixed economy, with some socialism and regulations thrown in to the general laissez-faire churn of the machine. The profit motive, unalloyed, drives people to cut costs, both in labor and materials. In fact, it could be argued that the profit motive, unalloyed, often makes people settle for less quality, whether they're making a thing, buying, or selling it, and whether they're happy about it or not.
We often dress that resignation up and call it virtue. But more on that next week.
How are you all today?