Friday, June 5, 2009

Snobs who have it all tell us to downsize

Excerpts from Todd Bucholz in the Wall Street Journal:

Maybe amid the financial wreckage we feel a natural yearning to go back to simpler times. But some of our commentators have taken this urge a little far. our rise from poverty.

In fact, small is not necessarily better, and there is a difference between a simpler life and the life of a simpleton. At what point in time should we declare: "Stop. Enough progress. Let's keep things simple"? Would 1 B.C. have been a good time to hit "pause"? Or July 3, 1776? Or on the eve of the 1964 Civil Rights vote? It's a good thing Teddy Roosevelt did not lock us into the standard of living of 1904 or we would never fly on airplanes, get a polio vaccination or expect to live past the age of 50.

The point is that we cannot know what we could be missing by halting our climb to toward affluence, any more than Emperor Joseph II could help Mozart by declaring that his opera had "too many notes."

And there is something unfair about decrying consumption at this stage in the game. Even if we simplify our lives and forswear "extra income," we will still benefit from centuries of innovation and wealth-creation that others have yet to enjoy. Make no mistake: To embrace the small-is-beautiful ethos is to crank up the drawbridge and leave a crocodile-infested moat between elites who already own Viking ranges and the masses yearning to gain access to indoor plumbing.

Never mind that in the past 20 years, thanks in part to the explosion of American consumption, hundreds of millions of people around the world, now with jobs to meet U.S. import demands, have eaten three meals in one day -- for the very first time in their lives. This is a War on Poverty that we are winning! Snobs would rather downsize and turn victory into defeat.

I would argue that it is the excitement of competition -- sloppy, risky and tense -- that brings us happiness.

Humans have competed ever since Cain picked up a rock and knocked Abel on the head. And, from a historical point of view, the idea of competition has not imprisoned us but liberated us, psychologically and materially.

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