Consumption, Creation, and Capitalism
A Faculty Memberís Response To Dr. Hauerwas
By Brian R. Brenberg
NEW YORK, April 13, 2010óI went to the drug store recently and discovered that choosing a cold medicine is not as simple as it sounds. My first mistake was asking the pharmacist for help. Do you prefer pills or syrup? Lozenges or spray? Is it a sore throat thatís bothering you? Or perhaps a cough? We have something for either or both. Not sick yet? No problem, we have preventative treatments too. And donít forget to pick your favorite flavor: grape, cherry, mango, lemon, honey, orange....
If your illness hasnít given you a headache, choosing a medicine might. But in the end, itís hard to argue that quick relief at a low price is anything but good. Still, did you ever wonder why we have so many options to treat something as simple as a cold?
In his keynote address on the topic of avarice at The Kingís Collegeís 2010 Interregnum, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas suggested that the engine of capitalism is consumption. The more we buy, the more we grow. We turn appetite into a virtue, and the more insatiable that appetite the better. Greed isnít the problem in capitalism--itís the sine qua non.
But letís think back to the drug store. Does an uncontrollable desire to consume explain why we have so many medicines to choose from? Or does capitalism have to begin with something else?
We take for granted that cold medicine can be chewed or sipped, that it tastes like grapes or cherries, that it knocks us out or keeps us awake. And we take for granted that it more or less works. But at some point, not all that long ago in the grand scheme of human history, nobody had any idea that any of this was even possible. Sure, many people wished (perhaps greedily) that they could rid themselves of a headache or a sore throat. But somebody had to figure out how.
The fact that we enjoy such a well-stocked medicine cabinet is the result both of our desire to fill it, and, perhaps more importantly, our discovering how. Itís this risky, uncertain, messy discovery part that critics of capitalism often forget or assume away. And itís this discovery part that capitalism is so good at making possible.
Humans were made to work creativelyóto tend a garden, to name animals, and even after The Fall to find ways to scratch the ground so that it might yield fruit. The virtue of capitalism, when combined with a political system that safeguards individual liberty, is that it provides space for the creative process of trial and error. You donít discover penicillin without first producing a bunch of useless mold.
Of course, with our God-given capacity to create comes the freedom to do so in ways that dishonor Him. The genius of capitalism governed by the rule of law is that it usually channels selfish action into beneficial outcomes. Even greedy people have to keep contracts and respect your property, which means that if they want your money, theyíre obliged to do something that pleases you.
But the real beauty of capitalism is the enormous potential it creates to do good things for oneís neighbor, like discovering a life-enhancing medicine, producing it cheaply, and selling it to people who could really use it. I wish Dr. Hauerwas had a greater appreciation for this potential, because he seems uniquely gifted to help others capitalize on it. But his vision is unlikely to change until heís able to recognize capitalism as a fundamentally creative enterprise.
Thankfully, none of us has to go far to see capitalist creativity in action. The medicine counter at the local drug store will do. I hope I donít see you there anytime soon, but if we do run into each other, letís say a prayer of thanks for those creative souls who make our choosing so wonderfully difficult. And letís not forget the economic system that makes their creativity possible.
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