Blame it on Free Will

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Human beings are a funny lot. All too often, rather than clearly analyzing our problems, we settle upon scapegoats, even where there is evidence to the contrary. This is easier. It saves difficult thought and painful revelations.

In that regard, Angela Fiori writes that, in response to one of her articles on, she received the following reply:

You don’t come close to what the real problem is [between men and women], the caustic consumer capitalism that is eating away at our lives and relationships. Of course that’s the last issue anything written on would ever explore.

The gauntlet has been thrown. And so this article will address the question of whether “consumer capitalism…is eating away at our lives and relationships.”

First, since I have already dropped “caustic” from the description, I will now drop “consumer.” For the sake of an accurate diagnosis, one must make careful distinctions. Capitalism, then, is the subject of the present inquiry.

Second, what is the nature of capitalism? Capitalism means the free market, in other words, men freely exchanging things. As a shortcut, we refer to the free exchange of goods and services as “a market.” A market is of course also the physical space where such exchanges take place.

Third, if men freely exchange things — if they buy and sell in a market — how does such voluntary activity “eat away at our lives and relationships”?

For starters, it would seem that it sustains lives and relationships: food that you buy keeps you alive, and movies and dinners sustain relationships. Dating gets a lot more difficult when you cannot rely on the division of labor to supply you with entertainers, chefs, and waiters (waiters; yes, waiters; not “servers;” if service must be in the name, are they not “servants”? One’s computer may be dependent upon a server, but one’s dinner may not, unless your kitchen is really automated).

For that matter, contemporary life would be nearly impossible without the division of labor provided by markets. Try growing a variety of nutritious foods on your own property, plus making your own furniture and clothing, and building your own home, generating your own electricity to run the appliances that you built yourself…and I hope you get the idea.

Human beings have one large problem, and one large problem only, from which all the little problems flow. The problem is not capitalis. The problem is that human beings are imperfect beings, subject to temptation and sin. Not religious? Fine. Consider that human beings have a strong tendency to screw things up, and to simply be weak, i.e., to do something — anything! — but what they are supposed to be doing.

The voluntary actions of buying and selling do not “eat away at our lives and relationships.” Instead, we eat away at our lives by living like a walking version of the disposal under a kitchen sink. Similarly, we destroy our own relationships with our insistence upon control, or an unthinking, lazy sort of self-centered approach to life.

If you can think of nothing better to do with your time than mindlessly walk shopping malls and spend money, that says more about you than about capitalism. Read a book, go swimming, or shoot skeet. Whatever you do, you are responsible for how you spend your time.

Blaming capitalism for an unhappy life or a failed love makes about as much sense as blaming a gun maker for an act of murder, or blaming a dairy farmer for your clogged arteries. Or, you might say that it makes as much sense as blaming your parents for everything bad that happens to you. Recall that this was a trendy and acceptable thing to do, until the Menendez brothers took things a bit too far, and commentators had a field day with the “I’m not responsible for anything I do” crowd.

That crowd didn’t go away. Instead, they found a new mantra, a new “New Age” religion: the hatred capitalism.

Why blame the free market for all that is wrong with the world? Because the alternative is to take responsibility for one’s life and to accept that sometimes, with the best efforts, comes nothing but sadness and bitter defeat. For those who cast blame upon capitalism, it is ignored that the exercise of our free will can also bring success and happiness.

Human beings are a funny lot.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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