Of the poverty of imagination

October 31, 2012

Of the criticisms commonly leveled at capitalism, none is more discordant than this one: "Capitalists are materialistic." Capitalists certainly concern themselves with the best possible allocation of scarce material resources, but that makes them economic creatures, not materialistic creatures. Capitalists also concern themselves with the creation of wealth, which necessarily involves the application of character traits and personal principles that have nothing whatsoever to do with material objects -- creativity and courage, for example, along with patience and perseverance.

The true materialist defines human flourishing solely by what we have and not at all by how we acquired it. To the pure materialist, the only problem that plagues humanity is material scarcity. A person who has more in the way of material things is necessarily flourishing more than a person who has less -- and vice versa.

By that definition, statists who automatically equate more government spending with the augmentation of human flourishing -- and any reduction in government spending with its diminishment -- are more materialistic than any capitalist.

An illustration: Parents, educators and child advocates alike clamor for increased spending on education. Presumably, they do so because they think "more educational resources" means "a better education."

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that's not necessarily true. From 1970 to 2008, for example, spending-per-pupil in the United States has doubled -- yet reading scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have remained flat.

Meanwhile, another statistic related to student achievement goes largely unnoticed: The more hours parents are away from home after school and in the evening, the more likely their children are to test in the bottom quartile on achievement tests -- even when statistical methods are used to control for differences in family income and in parental education, marital status, and total hours worked.

We're so stuck in our materialistic rut -- more material resources equals more human (in this case, student) flourishing -- that we're blind to the solutions that are right before our eyes.

It's time for us to stop focusing so much on the what and start focusing a little more on the how. It doesn't just matter that students have funds for education, it matters how they are educated -- and the evidence suggests that parents should do at least a part of that educating (i.e. help with the homework!).

In the same vein, it doesn't just matter that people have food, clothing and shelter, it matters how they acquire it. As I never tire of repeating, research shows that earned success is correlated with happiness in a way that handouts most certainly are not.

What people have is undeniably a part of human flourishing. It's hard to be happy when you're starving. It's not, however, the only part.

In the United States today, the policy emphasis on material inequality is misplaced. Not even the poor in America today are suffering from a lack of material resources in the same way that the poor in other countries suffer or the poor of other generations suffered. Americans today are suffering from a poverty of imagination -- an inability to conceive of wellbeing as consisting of anything more than food, clothing and shelter.