Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 29, 2020

in Cleaned by Capitalism, Growth, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen, Standard of Living

… is from page 87 of economist Diane Coyle’s 2014 book, GDP (footnote deleted; link added):

It has been rather fashionable to claim that there is “too much” choice. The evidence points the other way. Econometric estimates of the value consumers derive from additional varieties of certain products, say of cereals, or book titles, indicate that this is large even for seemingly trivial innovations like apple cinnamon flavor Cheerios. What must be the benefit when adding together everything from minor innovations in cereals, toothpastes, and flavors of tea, through more obviously novel innovations such as Velcro fastening or hybrid cars, to those we normally think of as high-tech, like smartphone and tablet computers, genetically targeted pharmaceuticals, and new materials such as graphene?

DBx: No serious person with normal human sensibilities believes that achieving ever-greater access to material goods and services is or ought to be the be-all and end-all of human existence. Non-material, ‘higher,’ experiences – love, friendship, a sense of purpose, dignity, spirituality, self-respect – are of course deeply important.

And while sometimes the pursuit of the material comes at the expense of the ‘higher,’ this trade-off isn’t always or even typically required. Very often acquiring greater access to material goods and services better enables the achievement of the ‘higher.’ Visiting grandma is more satisfying if she’s alive, and she might well be alive because of some pharmaceutical products or because modern electronic communications devices gave her sufficiently early warning to evacuate before Hurricane Wallop came ashore.

It’s easy and oh-so-cool for people awash in modernity’s material amenities to parade their ethical sophistication by denouncing what they take to be the excessive, even animalistic, “addiction” (as they often call it) of other human beings to material goods and services. (Often such denunciations feature as examples devices that are used chiefly for entertainment, such as flatscreen TVs – as if the opportunity for escape, to be entertained, is a somewhat contemptible human desire.) But such denunciations are made by people who cast a too-shallow glance at their fellow human beings.

Sure, the Joneses seem rather too materialistic, what with mom and dad snacking on microwave popcorn as they watch “Schitt’s Creek” on their flatscreen TV, while each of the junior Joneses sits alone in his or her room texting friends or surfing the Internet. The Joneses aren’t doing what some intellectuals fancy they should be doing. They’re not at the bowling alley; they’re not sitting on the porch talking with the neighbors; they’re not at a townhall meeting; they’re doing nothing found in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Yet what are the other experiences that the Joneses enjoy because of their ready access to an abundance of material goods and services? Well, if they are typical Americans they’re healthier than they would have been even just a few decades ago because of the availability of some drugs and medical devices and procedures that only relatively recently became available. The Joneses can talk daily, without worrying about the cost, in real time face-to-face with grandma and grandpa who live hundreds of miles away. When the Joneses travel by automobile they’re less likely to be killed or seriously injured than were their parents at their age. They can acquire recorded music and many books within seconds – and thus, if they wish, elevate their tastes and improve their minds.

And they can afford to give to charitable causes, send $250 by Venmo to a struggling nephew, and volunteer on Sundays to work at a community theater – activities invisible to those who only see the Joneses perched in front of a flatscreen TV watching a silly comedy show.

Of course not everyone spends his or her time and material prosperity well. Some people are truly shallow and hyper-materialistic by any standard. But it’s untrue that greater material abundance is necessarily – or even, in practice, usually – bought at the expense of the deeper and better and higher aspects of what it means to be fully human.

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