What we leave behind in our pursuit of more stuff

March 28, 2004|By John Atcheson

WASHINGTON - Public policy wonks, politicians, academicians and most of the rest of us have been operating under the assumption that more stuff means more happiness. And for the last 25 years, an assortment of free-market ideologues and neo-conservatives have been telling us that the key to getting more stuff is an unconstrained free market.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, some of our best political philosophers were even ready to declare an end to history, punctuating it with a dollar sign, a smiley face and a Happy Meal. Increasingly, we're buying into a presumption in which democratic principles of governance are joined at the hip with an extremist version of capital markets as the one true path to happiness, largely because it allows us to get more stuff.

Ah, but facts can be such inconvenient things.

For example, the apogee of happiness in America, according to the National Opinion Research Center, was in 1957, when the average American family had one car, one TV, a smaller house with one bathroom, no air conditioning, no clothes dryer, no stereo - in fact, less than half the stuff we have now. Since then, as psychologist David G. Myers points out, we've gotten less happy, but astronomically richer.

Study after study confirms that once the most basic of human needs are met, the correlation between wealth and happiness all but disappears. And yet, everything we do is built around the notion that an expanding economy is equivalent to more happiness. We've built our lives, our society and our governments around the notion of getting ever more stuff. No one even questions whether it increases human welfare or happiness. Today, an expanding gross domestic product isn't seen as a means to an end; it has become the end.

As a result, bigger GDPs and unfettered markets are now the sin qua non of public policy - the twinned gods of getting the good life.

Not only is this premise wrong, but it appears that our belief in markets that are relatively unconstrained may, in fact, subject us to a tyranny of another kind - the tyranny of markets. And this particular tyranny may, in many ways, be no less pernicious than those of governments. Subtler, of course, but nevertheless equally capable of robbing human dignity and sapping the sanity and soul of individuals and the values and morals of society.

We have exported the more obvious examples of market-based oppression to Third World countries. Three billion people - nearly half the global population - exist on less than $2 a day. The lopsided rules of globalization seem destined not so much to relieve this tyranny as to reinforce it by creating a huge pool of very low cost labor.

For example, in free-trade agreements, Japan, Europe and the United States generally have retained huge subsidies for their agricultural sectors. Poor farmers in developing nations can't compete with highly efficient and mechanized factory farms selling subsidized goods on the global market, and when their farms inevitably fail, they stream into the cities and ultimately into sweatshops.

There, men, women and children must work for 12 or more hours a day in conditions that are fully equivalent to those normally associated with slavery. Are they happy? Is the subjugation of these billions of souls any less odious because the whip is wielded by a business, not a government?

Why do they toil in these industrial snakepits? To make the things we in the developed world believe we need to be happy, and to make them at an "affordable price." Why do we believe we need them? Because companies spend more than $200 billion a year as of 1998 creating desires. Then our entire political and media apparatus bundles them into a "super-sized lifestyle" and dangles it before us, transforming wants into needs. The SUV-ization of America. But this version of the American dream isn't working.

Because now we're competing with those displaced Third World farmers for jobs. As a result, we're in the midst of a nearly jobless recovery, hourly wages are stagnant, income disparity is up both domestically and globally and happiness is down.

Americans say what they want most is more time with friends, family and loved ones, not more money. But locked in a global race to the bottom, seduced by the cult of consumption and living under a system that values unconstrained markets more than people, time is one luxury we don't seem able to afford.

Capitalism is unparalleled at creating wealth. But when it becomes an end, when it is not informed by deeper values, it may simply expand our waistlines and shrink our souls. Indeed, the exploitation of Third World peoples and cultures in its name may be part of the answer to the post-9/11 question, "Why do they hate us?"

John Atcheson has held a variety of policy positions in several federal government agencies.

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