Monday, October 26, 2009

the trivial benefits of consumer culture

I find a common pattern emerging in discussions I have about the merits of the free market. It's a feature of stuff produced in the market (I think) that there are trends towards variety in products and each individual product generally getting better, in quality and features. I already feel myself getting into trouble as I think many people will object to the quality claim and think that increased choice is actually a bad thing. But let's say we grant the premise.

Recently I used TV series as an example of this trend and my friend agreed that they were getting better and that there are lots of them but claimed that the benefits were trivial and so didn't matter.

But even if we grant that the benefits are trivial to each individual, it doesn't follow that they don't matter in the grand scheme of things and I think this attitude is where we can easily get into trouble.

In politics I think it's really easy to get into the habit of seeing any individual expense as a negligible part of total spending. A corrupt official might rationalise his corruption as costing each taxpayer only 5 cents. Even homeless people wouldn't miss 5 cents! It doesn't make a difference to anyone else but it makes a big difference to me! I doubt this is the exact thought process but I'm sure something of this attitude is involved. It's very different emotionally if there are highly visible victims.

But when it comes to politicians, I think we can agree that stealing a million rand from the general taxpayer should be treated with the same severity as stealing a million from only a few people. It's really important to establish the convention against corruption because a generally corrupt government is terrible for a country's citizens even if a single instance isn't a big deal.

Similarly, trivial benefits widely spread do add up. And while we wouldn't (and don't) notice if one of these benefits vanishes (or fails to materialise), we should take seriously the protection of the system that encourages these trivial benefits to proliferate.

1 comment:

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