Monday, February 21, 2005

Creating New Ideals

There are legitimate and difficult tasks associated with re-directing people's ideals. I see it as a slow process, akin to turning an ocean liner around.

One of the keys is to balance a perspective that does acknowledge the virtues of spontaneous market forces with a perspective that includes the valid and desirable human aspiration to make the world a better place.

Thus with respect to a comment on our Yahoo group:

"There has to be something better than dusting off the old "markets will save the world if you just let them schtick"--they didn't and they haven't and they won't--and it's not just the fault of meddling bureaucracies and Chicken-Little activists,"

I very much agree that there has to be something better; that is indeed the aspiration of FLOW. That said, we somehow have to find a way to talk about problems that acknowledges that, to a very remarkable, unacknowledged extent, markets come close to saving the world.

A simple case in point: A commentator in the WSJ estimated that under the rates of growth typical under India's socialist governments, India would not reach U.S. standards of living until 2300, whereas under the rates of growth achieved by more recent liberal (i.e. free market liberal) governments in India, India could reach current U.S. standards of living by 2050. Say what you will about Wal-mart and the spiritual poverty of the U.S., but I can't see any standard of morality that can justify sentencing a billion people to brutal poverty and widespread child slavery and prostitution for an additional 250 years because we don't like the aesthetics of the U.S. marketplace.

Thus while validating the urgent human desire to do good in the world by means of social entrepreneurship, our very first priority must be "to do no harm."

That said, I agree that we should acknowledge problems with existing market outcomes and seek to improve upon the outcomes. In some cases we may need to change the rules of the marketplace; in other cases we may need to be entrepreneurs; and in other cases strategic philanthropy may be crucial.

I do think that a major area of influence for FLOW could be to develop and encourage cadres of market enthusiasts who, instead of simply defending existing markets, emphasize the changes in market rules that would be necessary for social improvements. For instance, U.S. corporations are excessively driven by short-term profits in part because of SEC regulations from the 1930s that force corporations to report results quarterly in a particular manner. Privately-held corporations, not subject to SEC regulation of the equities markets, are not driven by short-term profits to the same extent as U.S. public corporations. Corporations in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere are less driven by short-term considerations because those nations do not have the same regulatory structure that we have. FLOW advocates should support a repeal of these SEC regulations while simultaneously working on an entrepreneurial solution to fill any reasonable social void left by the elimination of the SEC regulations.

"And if Flow starts parroting the smugness so prevalent on Fox and elsewhere, marginalizing "enviros" and other well-intentioned but often off-the-mark groups of activists, while simulataneously blindly extolling the virtues of the existing market--then we will lose a tremendous opportunity to forge something new and different."

I do think that the comment on "smugness" is appropriate; what most alienates do-gooders from market advocates is the apparent tone of smug complacency. We must always substitute a sensible action agenda for those who want to devote their energies to idealistic courses of action. Insofar as many market advocates make it sound as if "everything is okay" when it is clearly not, those market advocates immediately lose credibility among those who want to make the world a better place.

The other rhetorical challenge is to change the connotation of "market." For most idealists, "market," "free market," "capitalism," etc. all have connotations of greed. And yet the system that we want to create is one in which idealistic entrepreneurs demand the freedom that they need to make the world a better place. From a denotative perspective, the schools that I want to create require a "free market" in education. Yet many people imagine that a "free market" in education will result in the crass commercialization of education while also imagining that "public education" somehow results in virtuous civic education. We have to change 100 years of misleading understandings concerning basic terms and institutions in our society.

"For FLOW to succeed, it seems that it must embrace the path of authentic transformation, and resist at every turn the ease and temptation to engage in less meaningful translation--of dressing up old market apologia in new market language."

I would not so quickly repudiate "old market apologia." Mere economic growth has resulted in the most amazing standard of living for the average person that the world has ever seen. Although aesthetically I sympathize with an intellectual misanthrope I met who described Wal-mart as "hell," from a moral perspective I bow my head in gratitude every time I enter Wal-mart and see the amazing range of products available at amazingly low prices. If we had greater freedom in education, health care, and housing markets, it would then be possible to obtain decent education, decent health care, and decent housing at affordable prices. And then the people who work at such low wages at Wal-mart could afford decent lives. Instead, we have created a world in which vast volumes of trivial items are available cheaply, but those items that are most crucial to well-being are unreasonably expensive and inavailable.

One of our challenges is to validate the aspirational goals of cultural creatives to create new forms of social entrepreneurship while also persuading them to be more respectful of the basic needs and aspirations of ordinary people.

This leads to a response to the comments on whether FLOW ideals are new or not: "The sorts of ideals you mention as examples are not new; they are rather typical and conventional."

A few brief thoughts concerning the ways in which FLOW ideals may be new:

I used to despise my grandmother because she bought "Collectible" plates from The Franklin Mint. The Franklin Mint does a tremendous business selling highly-priced plates, statues, figures, etc. and marketing them aggressively as "limited-edition" collectibles. It is a case study of profits by means of deceptive hype. The objects are only "valuable collectibles" because The Franklin Mint hypes them so. The objects are priced far above the price of similar bric-a-brac available at tourist shops. The Franklin Mint would appear to be a case of capitalism at its most wasteful, deceitful, and profit-grubbing worst.

And yet it is undeniable that it makes my grandmother happy to buy these stupid plates. If I were a czar of economic virtue who could close down The (despicable) Franklin Mint, my grandmother would be less happy.

At the same time, I would feel as if I had failed as a father if my children grew up to desire this type of crap. I am pleased that my children prefer books and wilderness activity to kitsch from the mall.

So one sense in which it seems to me that FLOW ideals are new is for us to:

1. Celebrate the fact that ordinary people want and are made happy by Wal-mart, Mcdonald's, The Franklin Mint, and barbecues on 3000 sq. ft. decks. These things really do make most people happier than they would be without them. That's why those who sell them succeed in the marketplace.

While simultaneously

2. Aspiring to change tastes, culture, and preferences by means of voluntaristic choices offered in the marketplace by our culturally creative social entrepreneurs.

Another aspect of ideal #2 is that it forces us to create goods and services that people really want. If we are virtue-mongers, the way most idealists are, then we must take responsibility for making virtuous ways of life more enjoyable and rewarding than are competing alternatives.
If we open a church and people still go to the bar across the street, we have to acknowledge that we have failed to fully provide substitutes for what people get from going to the bar. If we open a meditation center and people still go to the mall, we have to acknowledge that we have failed to fully provide substitutes for what people get from going to the mall. We need to create ways of life that are so valuable that people actually pursue them as actively as they currently pursue existing consumption patterns. Or we need to acknowledge that people actually get something of value from the bar and the mall.

When I was in college, I sold solar energy collectors door-to-door. A friend, who was an ardent environmentalist, worked with me briefly but then quit because he hated door-to-door sales. And yet he would most certainly have supported a law that forced people to buy solar energy collectors. This strikes me as a morally bankrupt position. It is very easy to have opinions and to proudly and righteously support laws that force our opinions on other people. It is much, much more difficult to create an enterprise and make it a success by means of persuading people to give us their hard-earned money in exchange for the valuable goods and services that we provide.

For idealists to take responsibility in this manner also strikes me as a new ideal. Previous idealists have been content to announce that they believe in the right thing - one is reminded of Hollywood celebs arriving in their limos or SUVs to talk about how we are consuming too much oil. A public commitment on our behalf to create new goods and services, and new ways of living, that are so desirable that we can sell them in a marketplace, is a radical departure from previous types of idealism. If we combine a commitment to walk our talk in our personal lives with a commitment only to use voluntarism to bring people along, we will have set dramatically new standards for idealism.

Moreover, this type of responsibility is a bridge to ordinary voters. I think that the Democrats have been losing in large part because the elites who represent them despise ordinary people: they are people like me who despise the decorative plates put out by The Franklin Mint, they are people like my friend the environmentalist who is too good to sell door-to-door but who would happily force people to buy solar energy collectors. It is difficult to win support from those whom one despises.

Ordinary voters in America have a profound respect for personal responsibility. And they want to be liked and respected. If FLOW can balance a commitment to aspirations by means of voluntaristic social entrepreneurship by cultural creatives with an authentic celebration of ordinary Americans, we will be able to gain a following.

3 Comments:

Blogger MDM said...

One part of changing the connotations of 'market' is emphasizing that markets are a form of voluntary social cooperation, rather than a brutal Hobbesian war. Mainstream leftists often have a visceral sense that markets are zero-sum (or even negative sum) forms of competition. If we can show that markets are part of our larger set of tools for mutual aid and positive-sum cooperation, perhaps we can slowly change people's sense of the virtues of markets.

Great blog!

8:43 AM  
Blogger Michael Strong said...

I agree with you.

Thanks for the compliment,

Michael

2:31 PM  
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