Another credit snob. Or is he just a snob?

Geoffrey Manne —  4 April 2007

Benjamin Barber (the author of the polemic, Jihad vs. McWorld) has an editorial in the LA Times today.  Its title is:  “Overselling capitalism: Why today’s markets are headed for disaster unless there is a shift in focus.”  At first the editorial looks like a pretty standard entry in the growing line of comments suggesting we deny credit to the poor–you know, for their own good.  But then it really goes off the rails.  Can anyone explain to me what this means:

Capitalism’s success, however, has meant that core wants in the developed world are now mostly met and that too many goods are now chasing too few needs. Yet capitalism requires us to “need” all that it produces in order to survive. So it busies itself manufacturing needs for the wealthy while ignoring the wants of the truly needy. Global inequality means that while the wealthy have too few needs, the needy have too little wealth.

Huh?  “Too many goods” and “too few needs” implies a baseline.  Does anyone (least of all Barber) know what that baseline is?  In what way does “capitalism” require us  to do anything?  What does that even mean?  And how could it possibly be the case, giving the most charitable interpretation possible, that our economic system requires us to need all that it produces?  Has he not heard of bankruptcy?  Of Schumpeter?  I’d file this under “most idiotic paragraph I’ve read today,” but I’ve been reading some choice materials relating to the Microsoft EU case, so I can’t legitimately make that claim.

Really, this is an example of the worst kind of intellectual elitism and hubris–the belief that cute slogans can capture the complex reality of the market, reduce it to a manageable concept, and then enable perfect ex ante regulation. 

Actually, the dumbest paragraph(s) I read today are the very next ones in the article:

Capitalism is stymied, courting long-term disaster. We still work hard, but only so that we can pay and play. In order to turn reluctant consumers with few unsatisfied core needs into permanent shoppers, producers must dumb down consumers, shape their wants, take over their life worlds, encourage impulse buying, cultivate shopoholism and invent new needs. At the same time, they empower kids as shoppers by legitimizing their unformed tastes and mercurial wants and detaching them from their gatekeeper mothers and fathers and teachers and pastors. The kids include toddlers who recognize brand logos before they can talk and commodity-minded baby Einsteins who learn to shop before they can walk.

Consumerism needs this infantilist ethos because it favors laxity and leisure over discipline and denial, values childish impetuosity and juvenile narcissism over adult order and enlightened self-interest, and prefers consumption-directed play to spontaneous recreation. The ethos feeds a private-market logic (“What I want is what society needs!”) and combats the public logic fashioned by democracy (“What society needs is what I want to want!”).

Just in case you don’t get the real point (Barber doesn’t want it to be too clear, you see, because although he is blaming “the Man,” it’s still borderline-racist and definitely-distasteful):  Poor people are like infants.  He talks about all of us, but he’s not interested in protecting the rich from themselves–his concern is cheap credit, shopping addictions and poor people who “need” iPods.  And it is the poor who are duped by the capitalist merchants of death (or, in this case, leisure.  Same thing, I guess) into an infantile stupor, where they consume beyond their means, deny their civic duties, and generally act like poopyheads (we’re all infants now).

You can bet there is a simple corrective in Barber’s book (which I doubt I will ever get around to reading):  Enlightened and benighted (and massive!) government regulation.  His editorial makes an oblique reference to “democratic institutions,” but he doesn’t go into detail.  Of course Barber has the answer:  Constrain the capitalists.  And don’t worry–he knows ’em when he sees ’em.  And if we just restrict the capitalists to produce only our “core needs,” there won’t be any manufactured wants to cause all these problems.  And poor people can get back to needing food instead of MTV and rich people can get back to . . . not being too rich.  Oh, and cancer will be cured, backyard nuclear fusion will become reality and no one named Bush will ever be president again. 

Why is this garbage taken seriously?

Geoffrey Manne


President & Founder, International Center for Law & Economics

4 responses to Another credit snob. Or is he just a snob?

    market failure, right here 5 April 2007 at 10:20 am

    Those quoted passages certainly sound none too convincing.

    But what do you think of TRIPS and its effects on less developed countries? Any thoughts on the Thai government’s decision to issue compulsory licenses for essential, life-saving medications?

    Our patent system had led to far more R&D spent on lifestyle drugs for male baldness and sexual arousal, than for critical diseases like malaria. Is this a legitimate market outcome? Should poor people in LDCs be left to die, because they don’t have enough money to properly express their “preference” to live?


    Benjamin Barber’s main drawback is that he is one of the more graceless writers in the academy. It is wrong to characterize him – or his essay – as a proponent of significantly greater government regulation. Barber writes from the communitarian and republican (little “r”) tradition of political thought, which emphasizes civic virtue, “self-governing” individuals, and robust local institutions. Barber’s perspective is obviously nostalgic (read his paragraph about ye olde town square). However, he is not wrong to suggest that collective local institutions such as schools, libraries, churches, etc. provide a democratic framework in opposition to the consumerist, inward emphasis of modern commercial capitalism. This is an enduring and noble focus of American political thought dating back to the Puritans and leading colonial and early national thinkers and essayists. But this tradition owes much to Calvinist constructs of self-discipline and civil awareness – values and commitments not unlike those voiced by many Republicans (big “R”). So while no libertarian – indeed, the opposite of a libertarian – Barber is more properly pegged as a somewhat antiquarian advocate of civic virtue and responsibility than of government regulation.


    The regulation of capitalist waste will work brilliantly because voters take a well-reasoned, long-term view of the issues in making their democratic choices, and the government is populated by far-sighted, disciplined adults who work hard and do the right thing when it comes to trade-offs between what is truly needed versus what is frivolous and wasteful.

    [Comment backdated to April 1.]


    Excellent! Jihad v. McWorld is no better than this ignorant screed. The problem in the developing world isn’t too much capitalism or evil capitalism…it’s not enough capitalism!